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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Indie SF author involuntarily committed. (Page 1)

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Author Topic: Indie SF author involuntarily committed.
MattLeo
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Patrick Law is a 23 year-old Maryland middle school language arts teacher who has self-published two dystopian science fiction novels, one of which deals with a school shooting 900 years in the future. On August 22 he was put on administrative leave, and it appears he has been held for mental health observation.

The blogosphere and opinion journalists has of course wasted no time connecting the dots between the content of his novels and the involuntary commitment: "In Maryland, a Soviet-Style Punishment for a Novelist" is the Atlantic's on-line headline (boy that rag has gone down hill since it moved from Boston to DC).

But the Internet opinion mill may be premature. According to the September 2 LA Times the investigation was prompted by other signs of mental deterioration:

quote:
"It didn't start with the books and it didn't end with the books," State's Attorney for Wicomico County Matt Maciarello told The Times. "It's not even a factor in what law enforcement is doing now."
Well, fair enough I guess, but this is not quite as reassuring as appears at first. While the investigation may not have started or ended with the author's books, the county attorney leaves open the possibility that it focused on the books at some point. Given how unfamiliar the process of writing is to non-writers, combing through a work of fiction for clues to an author's behavior has a tremendous potential for causing mischief.

I don't think it's impossible for someone to glean some insight from an author's writing particularly a young and technically unsophisticated author. But if you approach an author's work in a suspicious frame of mind, the temptation to leap to unsupportable conclusions must be irresistible. What can you conclude about the mental health of Stephen King or Clive Barker from their stories? Nothing. What would you be tempted to conclude? Plenty.

So is is an author's writing a legitimate focus of investigation in a case like this? Personally, I say "no." But it's not entirely clear-cut. I think you *can* learn things about an author's state of mind from what he's written, but there's no way to distinguish truth from artifice.

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extrinsic
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Patrick McLaw's state of mind when he wrote novels may be indicative of a diseased state. Taken in a vacuum, however, his fiction writing in and of itself is inadequate for more than citizen hysteria, which was reported. Other personal issues are on point: a misguided and irrational complaint letter to his school board, upset family and personal relationships, grumbles expressed to his peer cohort, a confrontation, and evidence of mental slipping.

In the current social climate, an involuntary commitment is at least warranted for a thirty-day evaluation period due to his potential to harm himself. Citizen complaints about his fiction did draw attention to him. A troublesome slope when social isolation is at root a cause for either madness or creativity and the divide no hard, bright line. Out of an abundance of caution, no other course was conscionable.

[ September 02, 2014, 07:54 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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extrinsic -- I'm not against involuntary commitment per se. I'm against an author's published (or even self-published) fiction being a factor in deciding to use it.

Matthew A. Maciarello, the Wicomico County, Md. state's attorney, has confirmed that Mr. McLaw's books were at least one factor in deciding to hold McLaw for observation (source:http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/in-cambridge-md-a-soviet-style-punishment-for-a-novelist/379431/ , update #2). I think they should not have gone there. Someone who's an experienced writer and critic *might* be able to glean a few *debatable* insights from another author's work, but when cops and prosecutors start looking through novels for danger they're sure to find it.

It also seems like the books made a deep impression in law enforcement's view of the case. They've been certain to mention them and McLaw's "alias" (that is to say his pen name) when talking to the press. Maciarello, when asked about this, couldn't resist a little dig at the neighboring county: "We have a different way in Wicomico County. I can't speak for Dorchester."

He makes it sound like people in Wicomico tell a version of this joke: If a married couple in Dorchester County get divorced, are they still cousins?

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extrinsic
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Soley based on a writer's writing, a leap to a conclusion is unwarranted, a rush to judgment that emerged over three years. However, the Virginia Tech massacre by Seung-Hui Cho could, should have been prevented, but for an oversight by administration after writing professors reported a questionably disturbed student's disturbing writing.

Virginia law then and now in such circumtances requires at least an outpatient psycholgical evaluation by student health services, if not a public mental health facility, and an immediate hold placed on weapons purchases. All those were not instituted.

In the wake of that event, Dorchester County's response is reasonable, even if preemptive and overly cautious.

I can't speak for the Dorchester citizens and law enforcements' state of mind, state of the social consciousness of the community, nor its paranoia or tolerance threshold or state of social consciousness sophistication. A possibility exists, though, that McLaw was problematic in other areas, perhaps he was in a position where others wanted him removed, for intolerance, bigotry, alienation, or even job competition reasons, for examples. Unfortunately, overreactions often accompany underlaying agendas and motives that have little, if anything, to do with overt motives.

I sampled McLaw's The Insurrectionist. I see no overt traces of a disturbed mind. Although the style, craft, voice, and appeal leave much to be desired, about the only covert traces that narrative has of mental deficiencies are lack of focus, numerous style faults, content shortcomings, organization faults, bland voice, scattered viewpoint clarity and strength, and questionable audience appeal, common enough for ambitious struggling writers generally. In other words, perhaps a rigorous effort, though confused and disoriented.

One factor stands out, neither per se a trace of mental problems nor an absence thereof, inconclusive: violence and suicide ideation, for neither of which a crucial rhetorical purpose overtops or even timely and judiciously emerges. Such ideation must, if a writer will broach socially sensitive topics and subjects, rhetorically comment upon them: social commentary. What's missing, so to speak, conveys volumes of interpretable and implied meaning. Disturbingly similar qualities and missing contexture appear in Seung-Hui Cho's writing. Tel est la vie d'escritur and such is life.

Perhaps Dorchester County law enforcement initially misrepresented the causal circumstances, perhaps out of a need to disparage intellectuals. The writing in and of itself is not grounds for an involuntary commitment. By law, a reasonable preponderance of evidence presented to a qualified judge is required. The writing by itself is not enough evidence. Other pattern disturbances are needed. Behavioral disruptions meet those criteria.

[ September 03, 2014, 01:15 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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J
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That is terrifying. My WIP has awful, horrifying descriptions of violence to drive home without exposition the point that violence is awful and horrifying. But what would someone see there if they were looking to it to validate a hypothesis that something is wrong with me?

I see the argument that it's relevant, even agree with it in some respects. But that doesn't make the power wielded by a prosecutor less terrifying, or less prone to error when--as looks like might the case here--considering facts with which the prosecutor has no experience in a vacuum or in the wrong context.

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extrinsic
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McLaw's novel makes the egregious error of taking for granted, assumes readers share a common horror, or glorification, of the portrayed violence and its underlaying insurgent rebellion--a clumsy mixture of domestic and international current events--of not clearly defining whether the attitude toward those subjects is pro or con, though leans toward pro. Missing contexture. Missing rhetorical purpose.
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Grumpy old guy
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If McLaw was suicidal or, even more disturbing, of a murderous intent, it would show unequivocally in his writing style, voice and content; he wouldn't be able to stop himself extolling the virtues of either. A trained forensic psychologist could answer that question in roughly 5 minutes.

To me, this smacks of a modern form of McCarthyism and authorities pandering to the vocal concerns of an hysterical minority. That said, I live in a country with warranted and draconian gun laws; our last massacre was twenty-odd years ago. I could offer a load of unwanted advice on the subject but I will restrain myself from finger pointing.

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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Knowing so little of the case, or the work in question, it's hard to respond to what apparently happened...I've tried a couple of times to write something about the aftermath of a school shooting, something with fantasy elements, yet---I finished a draft once (which was somewhat unsatisfactory on a couple of points, so I never went further), but it seems every time I think about it, there's another incident. And I didn't want to look like I was writing it because there was a shooting.

This brings a new wrinkle in worry to the table. I work-for-a-living in a place that is, well, rather sensitive to the idea of shooting. If, say, I put the completed story out on my website with my other busted stories, it looks like someone might see it and try to make some case about me being violent. (There are people out there who, I firmly believe, would do me dirt if they have the opportunity.)

I'm reminded of an episode of "As Told By Ginger"---it's the inveterate TV watcher in me---where the teenaged Ginger was asked by a teacher to write something for a contest, wrote a poem about a girl who was ignored and who eventually disappeared---then the teacher sent her to the school psychologist for writing it. (I thought that if it happened to me, my chances of doing anything for that teacher again would be close to zero, especially anything literary.)

Now, I put a lot of myself into my work---but my work is not me, and anybody reading my work should not draw that conclusion. Other writers are entitled to that same courtesy.

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Owasm
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We live in a paranoid country. The citizens aren't paranoid, the elites that run it, from the pre-school teacher to the president, are. There are those who want us to use a certain light bulb, only use a certain amount of water when we flush a toilet and eat certain foods at school. We are too dumb to police ourselves anymore... in their opinion. (the disease infects elites of both political parties, by the way)

When a kindergartner is suspended for pointing his finger at a fellow student and saying bang, you know we have a very sick society that brooks no deviation from the elites' perception of what is normal. Society in general is much, much more tolerant.

Although not much is known about Mr. Law's state of mind, I can easily see an elite seeing a blurb of Law's SF book and recoiling in horror, not realizing that it is fiction. That there might be redeeming messages in the book.

Who has read it? All people seem to care about is that there are children killed in a school tragedy centuries in the future? What if the book doesn't support such a thing and people are punished and the perpetrators are antagonists and not protagonists? Whatever happened to freedom of speech? Have these people ever read any dark fantasy?

If it's objectionable to the elites who run our country, then by all means let's institutionalize the guy and string him up in the press. Only because of the appearance of evil. All they want to do is force fit the populace into a mold of their thinking.

The reductions in our freedom of expression have been increasing at a distressing rate for the last thirty years and that is the true tragedy.

[ September 03, 2014, 10:55 AM: Message edited by: Owasm ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
A trained forensic psychologist could answer that question in roughly 5 minutes.

So could a witch doctor. Or if the manuscript is handwritten, so could a graphologist. Or if you knew McLaw's precise date and time of birth, so could an astrologer.

The foundation of modern science is induction from empirical evidence. If you can point to the peer reviewed literature on inferring the mental state of an author from his published work, and then I'll accept that the opinion of a forensic psychologist based on a manuscript is scientific. Otherwise that opinion is no more than just a pseudoscientific hunch. Hunches are admittedly important in investigations, and they're often uncannily accurate whether they come from psychologists or psychics. But hunches aren't enough to justify ruining a man's career and reputation.

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Grumpy old guy
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quote:

Originally posted by MattLeo:
But hunches aren't enough to justify ruining a man's career and reputation.

It's already ruined whether he is guilty or not. He has been tried and convicted in the court of public hysteria.

quote:

Originally posted by MattLeo:
The foundation of modern science is induction from empirical evidence.

And yet it is called scientific theory for a reason; most modern science is still theoretical. Admittedly in most cases theory can explain observed fact, yet it is still only theory. Atomic theory is still just that, a theory. It was only a few decades ago that science found out that atoms actually exist. And no one has yet seen an electron, or have I missed a paper?

Phil.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
And yet it is called scientific theory for a reason; most modern science is still theoretical. Admittedly in most cases theory can explain observed fact, yet it is still only theory. Atomic theory is still just that, a theory. It was only a few decades ago that science found out that atoms actually exist. And no one has yet seen an electron, or have I missed a paper?

It's true nobody has seen an electron. Nobody's ever seen gravity either but I strongly advise you don't make a habit of walking down stairs with your hands in your pockets.

There are lots of things that inherently invisible whose existence is easy to prove. Hydrogen gas. Electric charge. Ionizing radiation. The paper demonstrating the existence of the electron was written in 1900 [1]. It won J.J. Thomson the 1906 Nobel Prize in physics. The subsequent determination of the mass of the electron is an important story in the history of science, and I'm surprised you as a science fiction author aren't at least somewhat familiar with it. Surely you've heard of the Milikan oil drop experiment? None of that would be possible if there weren't some kind of small, light, invisible particle with a fixed negative electric charge which makes up cathode rays.

It is true that the existence of atoms is a matter of scientific theory. That means we're quite certain they *do* exist, and have ample evidence to back that certainty up. That's what "theory" means in science [2]. There's a long line of evidence for the existence of the atom culminating with the Geiger–Marsden experiment of 1908.

By the time the Manhattan Project started the existence of atoms was no mere conjecture. They didn't spend the equivalent of 26 billion modern-day dollars, in the middle of a war, on the off chance atoms *might* exist. Not only did they know the atom existed, they had a detailed atomic "theory", which meant they didn't have to proceed by trial and error. They knew exactly what isotopes of exactly what elements they needed, and how much. That understanding wasn't dreamed up out of the blue; it came from extensive laboratory experimentation.

Some quack's "theory" that he can read the mind of an author of a manuscript is not a "theory" in the sense the relativity or evolution is a "theory". It's just pure, unsupported conjecture.

citations

1: Thomson, J. J. (1900). XXV. The genesis of the ions in the discharge of electricity through Gases. The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 50(304), 278-283.

2: Rudolph, J. L., & Stewart, J. (1998). Evolution and the nature of science: On the historical discord and its implications for education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(10), 1069-1089.

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extrinsic
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Debating whether psychology is a science is irrelevant. Comparing a physical science to a social science is akin to comparing sunsets to handgrenades. The psychology field is considered and accepted as a social science by a large consensus. The very origin of the psychology field was instituted by Freud's analytical interpretation of literature, foremost ancient Greek writing, like Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus.

Before Freud, horrors of horrors, persons suspected of emotional and personal conditions, or not, were subjected to capital punishment, exile, shunning, imprisonment, staked out on anthills, blood let, tortured, bound, poisonous and intoxicating substances forced upon them, voluntarily taken, or self-medicated, lost legal standing of competence in their personal affairs, labeled simpleton, idiot, or moron, all their property seized by the state or distributed to their legal heirs, contracts adjudicated invalid, divorced, and marriage dissolved by court and bishop decree.

A competent court relying upon expert psychological testimony today is the only recourse a wrongfully suspected person of questioned mental status has to such seizure and loss of rights.

The question of import before us, though, is does a person's prose writing subject that person to legal action and assessment coercion. Answers are complex. Yes and no, simply. Yes, if overriding circumstances bear inclusion of writings. No, not in isolation. That is the issue Patrick McLaw has, he was ordered to undergo evaluation because of a misguided and apparently questionable four-page letter he sent to his school board, for acts of harrassment, for a criminal act, because of upsets to his personal and family relationships, and for expressing aloud thoughts which were taken as indicative of a potential to harm himself.

Any expression by law enforcement, government officials, or press that cites the reason for McLaw's troubles is his writing are unfounded, ignorant, and sensationally intended. No, not his writing from 2011. His aberrant behavior summer 2014.

On the other hand, Mclaw's troubles may have begun earlier, from a community reaction to him that goaded him into a corner. He's a young, educated, single, urban black man who worked at the time in a rural community school. The rural community is more rustic than average. Likelihood that a negative community attitude formed toward him from the get-go is high. Though insubstantive, his fiction writing could very well have led to further goading that eventuated in part in his unstable behaviors, that, in turn, led to the straits he's in. Isolation is a cruel though common esoteric community practice, made more cruel by closely tightknit communities' united shunning and abuses of strangers.

The community didn't want McLaw; tragically, he's been gotten and gone, one way or another.

[ September 10, 2014, 11:56 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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J
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There's got to be more to it than the guy's fiction writing. The burden of proof for involuntary commitment is very high. I'd be interested to know what else he said or did that triggered the whole chain of events leading to an involuntary commitment. The commitment proceeding itself is a non-trivial investment of resources for some lawyer with an otherwise busy caseload. No one is going to go through that trouble without some good reason.

There's always the possibility that the poor guy didn't hire counsel (or hired bad counsel) and/or got railroaded by a very prosecutor-friendly judge. But most judges, in most places, most of the time, are very sensitive to the need to make the prosecutor carry the burden of proof in cases like this.

All that being said, if a psychiatrist, or even a psychologist, came in and testified and said the guy seemed dangerous, that would probably do it (presuming that the mental health expert had a degree from somewhere accredited, wasn't overtly biased against the litigant, and more or less sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

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extrinsic
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Patrick McLaw has capable counsel representing him and his rights.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
I put a lot of myself into my work---but my work is not me, and anybody reading my work should not draw that conclusion. Other writers are entitled to that same courtesy.

The problem is that people who don't write can have a hard time understanding that. And if there's a way to help them understand it, I haven't heard about it.
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J
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Patrick McLaw has capable counsel representing him and his rights.

Judges get things wrong sometimes, no question about it. But better than 9 out of 10 times, if there's capable counsel on both sides, the better-evidenced position wins. And when the burden of proof leans so heavily in favor of the defendant, as it does with involuntary commitment, a loss suggests compelling evidence that the guy was a danger. In Maryland, even for an emergency petition (as was the case here), the standard to commit involuntary for longer than a day or two is "clear and convincing" evidence. That's a much higher standard than a preponderance, but not quite as high as beyond reasonable doubt.

Maybe that wasn't the case and maybe this is a travesty. Weighing in on the side of "potential injustice" is the fact that in Maryland this sort of decision is made by an administrative law judge rather than a normal presiding judge. Error rate for ALJs is higher and in my experience they tend to give more benefit of the doubt to officials like state's attorneys. But even so, if McLaw has a good lawyer and ended up committed anyway, the smart money is on there being some powerful evidence of dangerousness.

If it really is just the book, and nothing else, I hope his lawyer takes it up on appeal. Courts of appeal don't tend to like rehashing arguments on the merits, and will probably accept the facts as the ALJ found them to be. But even accepting those facts (whatever they are), the legal question of whether the evidence presented satisfies the 'clear and convincing' standard is probably appealable. I don't know Maryland's procedure for appealing out of an administrative hearing, but there will be some mechanism for his lawyer to get this in front of either a normal presiding judge or the intermediate court of appeals.

If it works its way up the chain and the higher courts bless the decision, then we'll all know better than to write stuff with violence in it while living in Maryland. Actually, there's probably a good idea for a novel buried in that news story . . . .

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extrinsic
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McLaw's attorney is comparatively tight lipped abouty the case, in part due to HIPAA rules and lawyer confidentiality standards. He has noted the commitment is based upon well-intended worries McLaw might be a danger to himself. I think the attorney's holding back for civil litigation purposes and probably because, except for sensationalized reporting, proper procedures were followed and contractual obligations were met. Folk covered their backsides.

McLaw's teaching contract is with the state department of education, though the county school board is elected and local. At the least, perhaps McLaw will be awarded a generous severance package and afforded a transfer to another education position, possibly as a state administrative education staffer. Maybe even sales of his novels will benefit from the controversy and scandal. I sampled four chapters of The Insurrectionist; they didn't entice me to buy at $14.95 cost.

I have a project under development with somewhat related circumstances. I was stuck on one circumstance into which McLaw's situation offered insight. One area where I will not make mistakes is rigorous avoidance of close parallels with current events. Another, equally critical, is expressing social commentary, taking a stand, supporting it, and, of course, about a moral human condition that's at root a public crisis: an accessible rhetorical purpose.

[ September 07, 2014, 06:00 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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I'm in no way arguing that psychology is not a science. I'm arguing that profiling an author based on his writing has no demonstrable scientific basis. If the social consensus thinks it has, then the social consensus needs to be fixed. Psychology *is* rich in specializations with considerable claim to scientific rigor, but that doesn't mean every psychological notion or practice is credible.

Starting psychology with Freud, by the way, is pretty far off the mark. Academic psychology in both the US and Germany predates Freud by years or decades. Even Descartes and Newton both undertook studies that would today fall under the rubric of "psychology".

Freud himself was trained as a neurologist and anatomist. It was his involvement with neuropathologies that were not anatomically possible that lead him to psychology. He was, as you say, a man of prodigious education; he spoke five modern languages and three ancient languages fluently. He was also a man of elevated literary tastes, and of no mean ability himself. All this contributed to his credibility with the intelligentsia; but the fact that he was brilliant and admirable doesn't mean he wasn't a quack.

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Grumpy old guy
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The FBI seems to think that forensic behavioural psychology has some merit.

Psychology is a soft science with very little repeatable experimental data to support its conclusions. However, what it can do, and extremely well, is to identify trends in motivation and personality -- hence advertising and marketing; if it didn't work then people wouldn't spend billions of $'s on it.

I wasn't saying that a psychologist could tell you exactly what someone is thinking but I bet most could predict in advance how, say, MattLeo would react to certain external stimuli.

Phil.

PS: McLaw isn't paranoid, everyone IS out to get him.

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extrinsic
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How about we turn the discussion to ways perhaps to avoid the issues under discussion:
  • of touchy subject matter
  • identifying problem subject matter and how to minimalize its negative reactions without compromising a creative vision
  • of defusing possible community negative reactions to touchy subjects
  • of packaging narratives such that they speak favorably for themselves despite unwarranted negative reactions, so that a public consensus speaks in opposition to and against negative critcism
  • of coping with and professionally managing negative reactions
  • how to educate readers who are not writers about fiction writing's dramatic need for sex, violence, and touchy subject events, settings, and characters
  • of also gossipers who haven't read but negatively react to controversial subject matter

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Grumpy old guy
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I am reminded of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I first read it in the late 60's and was surprised to find that it had been originally banned in the USA and then re-printed in a heavily edited version. I couldn't fathom why such would have been necessary or desirable, having read the original unedited version.

It would appear that all times and societies have their sacred cows that dare not be milked, or slaughtered by us heathen and degenerate artistic types. Damn Bohemians, subversives and marxist-leminists (sic), the lot of us!

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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Never heard that Stranger in a Strange Land was banned in the USA---except by individual libraries. I gather that Heinlein wrote it over about ten years in the 1950s, it came in somewhere over two hundred thousand words (much longer than the usual SF novel of its era), he was asked to cut it down to one hundred fifty thousand words, he manged to sweat it down to one hundred sixty or so, and it was then published that way. After Heinlein's death, his widow reverted the rights and decided the "uncut" version read much better and saw to it that it was published. Both versions are still in print, I gather.

Personally, I think the "uncut" version reads more smoothly than the cut version, but that may just be a matter of taste, and possibly my own growing maturity (I was, oh, maybe eleven when I first read it.)

Heinlein is a classic case of the writer not being the work---when the hippies embraced Stranger, he went out of his way to avoid being anybody's personal guru. (The Charles Manson connection is just an urban legend.) Nor did they find much comfort in his other work, some of which seemed inconsistent with Stranger (though Heinlein always denied any inconsistency.)

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Heinlein is a classic case of the writer not being the work---when the hippies embraced Stranger, he went out of his way to avoid being anybody's personal guru. (The Charles Manson connection is just an urban legend.) Nor did they find much comfort in his other work, some of which seemed inconsistent with Stranger (though Heinlein always denied any inconsistency.)

I find with great writing there's often an element of "where the hell did that come from?" You can obviously analyze great writing; take it apart and identify themes or literary techniques. Sometimes you can can connect a theme or motif in a writer's work to his biography. I think Clifford D. Simak's peculiar sensitivity to rural landscape has something to do with his growing up here.

But Stranger in a Strange Land is one of those novels that leaves you scratching your head: how in the world did *this* writer come to write *this* story? Some of the material you can trace to zeitgeist. There was a fascination in the 40s and 50s sci-fi community with ideas like Korzybsky's "General Semantics", a pseudoscientific program of behavioral re-engineering. You can draw a pretty plausible line from General Semantics to both Dianetics and Stranger in a Strange Land. Still -- why Heinlein of all people to write the great counter-culture sci-fi novel of the 60s?

Authors consciously and unconsciously try to tap into contemporary readers' anxieties and aspirations. How do you separate zeitgeist from the author's own obsessions? I don't think you can reliably; certainly not if the piece in question is consonant with what's on contemporary peoples' minds. Patrick McLaw may be crazy as a bedbug so far as I know, but he was also in third grade or thereabouts when the Columbine shooting took place. The fact that someone of that age should choose a school shooting as the topic of his first novel is hardly evidence for anything, any more than authors writing about alienation and existential dread in the post WW1 era is evidence for neurosis. Neurosis was fashionable back then.

As for science, science hard or soft has to be rooted in empiricism. So far as I know there has never been a mass shooting perpetrated by a novelist, so there's no empirical basis for extrapolating from experience with the writings of mass shooters to an author's fiction. The thing that makes science a reliable guide is that unlike pseudoscience, real science (hard or soft) can't do anything you ask it to do.

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Robert Nowall
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Remember one of the "other" great counterculture books was The Lord of the Rings---and I don't think you could find any writer further away from the flower children than Tolkien.

It's said of a lot of the writers who were in World War I believed they had come face to face with evil, and their work reflected it, often in opposition to those who hadn't been through what they'd been through.

On that basis, when someone of this present era writes about something like school shootings, it seems hardly surprising...so how did authorities make the hop-skip-and-jump between a dystopian SF novel partly about a school shooting, and locking a writer up for mental health evaluation?

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Grumpy old guy
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I've read a lot of Heinlein's work and I'd say he is pretty consistent in the motifs and underlying themes he uses, in essence to poke sacred cows with a sharp, pointed, literary stick. I particularly liked an anecdote of Lazarus Long's in Time Enough for Love titled: The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy To Fail. The exact antithesis of the prevailing notion of: Hard work will bring success.

I guess it all depends on the intent of the writer; to incite or to entertain. To grossly generalise, I'd hazard a guess that writers who set out to incite people to violence (of whatever nature and for whatever reason) tend to clothe their writings as factual or scientific rather that as works of fiction. They are talking seriously about serious matters. And any sane person will nod sagely, agree with whatever is being shouted at them and then seek the nearest exit.

Phil.

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ForlornShadow
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This is just a thought but whatever happened to the whole innocent until proven guilty thing? I understand why in some cases this doesn't work, like the Virginia Tech shooting and so on; however, does committing someone for potential harm to themselves or others outweigh his rights as a person? Some argue yes, others no. From what I have gleamed from other posts is that he wrote a letter to someone that was questionable in content, and that he had issues at home and so on. But don't we all? I know I don't get along with my family every day of the week and I also know that when upset or stressed I might say things that others would call questionable. That in no way means, however, that I am going to act upon what I have said or written down. I do think as a whole society, and this includes the elite, needs to be cautious but not to the point of being paranoid.

I believe someone said in a post that a certified psychologist testified that he is troubled I can accept that, but no one is correct all of the time especially if they were primed to think a certain way. I would be skeptical of his or her assertion unless he or she can show me the method in which they evaluated him.

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Robert Nowall
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One of the interesting things about Heinlein is that he moved all the way from extreme left to extreme right in the course of his lifetime---without, it is claimed, changing at all. Puzzling, to say the least.

*****

Let me take a step back and look at the little I can glean from a quick look through a couple of online news stories I just websearched. (Apparently the writer in question goes by several names, but the stories link to "Patrick McLaw.")

It would seem there were other factors involved...but it would seem the book, and the name of a character in the book, played a factor, too. There was something that might be taken as stalking, as well as a four-page letter that could be taken as a suicide note.

A great deal of this does seem open to interpretation...so why was it interpreted just one way?

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extrinsic
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A reporter irresponsibly reported the sheriff's irresponsible reporting of McLaw's novels as the reason for his involuntary commitment.

This is akin to a gossip panic, an iota of truth blown out of proportion, sensationalized, and factual truth buried behind the sensational detail so that an otherwise mediocre non-news story, except of local interest, reaches international attention.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
A reporter irresponsibly reported the sheriff's irresponsible reporting of McLaw's novels as the reason for his involuntary commitment.

The reporter was not irresponsible in this case unless he *amplified* the sheriff's comments in some way. Once the sheriff indicated that the books were even *part* of the decision to detain McLaw against his will, the reporter had the a duty to report that to the public. Some things should be controversial, because they deserve scrutiny.

In related, breaking news, there's been an attack by a teen against her family supposedly triggered by reading an ebook about Slender Man. I've attempted to find the ebook "Soul Eater", but it's complicated by the fact that that's also the title of a popular anime/manga. The book in question might be a fan-fic mashup; there's a lot of that.

The media has been quick to play up on the sensational aspects of this story. The above link calls the the "latest case of Slender-man inspired violence" without pointing out that there has only been one other case where the urban legend has been implicated, out of who knows how many thousands of acts by disturbed teens.

I wonder whether the public's overall understanding of fiction has dropped with the precipitous drop in reading rates over the last 30-40 years. In 1978 only 8% of the population hadn't ready any books in the prior year; today that figure is 23%. The number of people who read 11 or more books per year have dropped from 42% to 28%.

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extrinsic
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A straightfoward report by the sheriff and the reporter who broke the story would have stated a school teacher was suspended for suspected unstable behaviors. Other reported details, including that McLaw was involuntarily committed, violate his rights under the HIPAA exclusion of medical information released to the public without patient consent. A suspension is a matter of public record. That's not sexy enough though.

Both sheriff and reporter chose to emphasize the school teacher was a writer of a locally controversial 2011 novel, three years prior, and suspended and involuntarily committed for that reason in the main, placed the details of his summer 2014 unstable behaviors, the actual reason for his suspension and involuntary commitment, in supporting emphasis, not as the reporter's lead or the sheriff's or the school board's main concerns. The sheriff and the school board placed less emphasis on the novel's import; the reporter led the story with that emphasis, sensationalized an otherwise trivial local story into an international story. Irresponsibilities on each's part abounds.

[ September 07, 2014, 12:34 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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TaleSpinner
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The Atlantic's reporting follows an irresponsible journalistic writing process, designed to sell.

This is not "Soviet style". Neither the Soviet Union nor present-day Russia enjoy the kind of independent judiciary we have in the West. It's not "punishment" either.

Both the school and the police seem concerned more than anything about his four page letter. If you watch the TV report and freeze frame excerpts of the letter, it is indeed concerning, seemingly like a suicide note even though the letter says it's not - written on July 4th it's his "declaration of independence."

One might indeed be concerned for his mental health, his safety, and the safety of the children in his care.

Further, they're young, and need to feel safe in their school. How can a teacher make kids feel safe when writing stuff that trades upon fear? I do not think this writing is commensurate with his duties as a teacher, at least, not without an explanation.

Were something awful to be perpetrated at his school, either by McLaw or a child at the school, the school and the police would be held to account and asked why they had not acted. This is not about freedom of speech, it's about proactively assuring the safety of the kids and controlling what seems to be a risk - while they did not find guns t his home (which are easy to buy in the USA when you want them) they did find models of two schools.

In the TV interview with McLaw he says it's all a misunderstanding, which may be true, but given the climate of fear and the way his books capitalise upon it, he's remarkably inept at dispelling the misunderstanding. He could have headed it off by discussing his books openly with school managers but apparently didn't.

And his writing is appalling. Surely this alone is reason to remove him from teaching language arts! And what kind of fiction is he encouraging kids to read? Is it age-appropriate? Are there vulnerable kids in his classes? Is there a risk they'll copy horrific scenes from books he recommends they read?

I think the authorities are behaving responsibly, to the best of their ability, in a climate of fear. America surely has the appropriate police, legal and mental health procedures to balance McLaw's safety, the safety of kids in the school's care with freedom of speech.

The Atlantic's reporting, with its "Soviet punishment" language, is irresponsible, and taking advantage of freedom of speech to pump up sales by provoking fear.

Just my 2c.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
I wonder whether the public's overall understanding of fiction has dropped with the precipitous drop in reading rates over the last 30-40 years. In 1978 only 8% of the population hadn't ready any books in the prior year; today that figure is 23%. The number of people who read 11 or more books per year have dropped from 42% to 28%.

I think that's a good point. In my observation, people who don't read much fiction tend to think fiction is real, unless it's very obviously not-of-this-world.
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Robert Nowall
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I was wondering what other writers have had this kind of problem---confusing them with their literary work, possibly to the point of arrest and confinement.

What comes to my mind is when the authorities suspected Colin Wilson of being the Yorkshire Ripper. I'm fuzzy on details, though; Wikipedia entries for both subjects don't mention it.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:
And his writing is appalling. Surely this alone is reason to remove him from teaching language arts!

My daughter's middle school teacher sent a story home with comment saying she needed to use more adverbs. Lots and lots more adverbs... That's dreadful writing advice but maybe appropriate to the level of education where you're supposed to be learning which end of the hammer whacks the nail.

McLaw's novel reads like a middle school story where the assignment was to use all the words on the vocabulary list and at least five of the rhetorical techniques discussed in last week's module. It's dreadful as a first published novel, but maybe not so bad as a first finished manuscript. At least I've read a lot worse. What he needs is someone to tell him to stop trying to use everything in the toolbox on every single page. When there's too much clutter, there's no room for style.

Right off the bat he commits a tyro blunder: a prologue (mislabeled, probably unintentionally, as a "preface") that's supposed to bring the reader up to speed on the story world's history. A sharp, critical reader would tell him is that the prologue is unnecessary and as it stands does nothing for his story.

In the opening chapter he commits another beginner mistake of trying to create atmosphere by drowning the scene in atmospheric language. The effect is fevered and overwrought. I can see how someone who hasn't read a lot of these bad manuscripts could find it disturbing, but I've also seen writers who write like this get a lot better with practice. McLaw was 20 years old when he published this, which means he was probably 17-18 years of age when he started writing it. He's still got plenty of time to become a good writer.

quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:
I think the authorities are behaving responsibly, to the best of their ability, in a climate of fear. America surely has the appropriate police, legal and mental health procedures to balance McLaw's safety, the safety of kids in the school's care with freedom of speech.

Since the sheriff (who is coming up for re-election) brought up McLaw's writing under a pen name, you can't really make a blanket statement that law enforcement has behaved responsibly. In a climate of fear, I would expect law enforcement to protect my rights against the mob.

As for whether McLaw needs to be restrained or not, none of us can possibly know that. All we have is law enforcement's statements on the case, some of which are *ipso facto* irresponsible. That's why I think there ought to be an independent investigation.

quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:
The Atlantic's reporting, with its "Soviet punishment" language, is irresponsible, and taking advantage of freedom of speech to pump up sales by provoking fear.

I am no fan of the Atlantic -- at least since it was purchased by a neo-conservative billionaire and moved down to DC. But you are aware that magazine and newspaper writers don't write headlines? In the case of the Atlantic piece, the writer attempted to track down and interview some of the people involved with the story, which is considerably more responsible than making unsupported conjectures one way or the other.
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extrinsic
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Fiction enjoys greater freedom of speech protections than other written expression. It is fiction and until doctrinal modifications of balancing tests proscribing publication the test was bad tendency. The bad tendency test generally determined whether an expression solely tended to incite or cause illegal activity, including seditious acts--abolition was one seditious act, for example, that came under the bad tendency test before the Civil War. Similarly, antigovernment matter during wartimes, World Wars I & II, and as recently as the Gulf Wars--though not fiction.

The clear and present danger test more narrowly defined what expression is actionable, again, though not fiction per se. The imminent lawless action doctrine yet more narrowly defined actionable expression, again, though not fiction per se.

Note the word "imminent." Written matter generally has greater protection than spoken word due to written matter's lesser likelihood of inciting lawless acts. The presumption is that written matter is generally removed in time and distance from its creation and its tendency to incite lawless acts. Whereas spoken word is immediate in time and place to its utterance.

Critics of the negative approval type note a passing of responsibility from writer for fiction, assigning any responsibility for "bad tendencies" to characters that society and any reasonable person would want prosecuted and punished. Yet that passing of responsibility is a foundational function of fiction's social commentary function, enjoyed by court jesters and bards of old, to call attention through irony, satire, parody, lampoon, sarcasm to social issues not normally open to direct and overt challenge or question. This is fiction.

The single issue of consequence for Patrick McLaw's The Insurrectionist is whether the fiction has a real--real--potential to incite lawlessness. The fictional slaughter of a school's complement is not the underlaying point of the novel, rather an insurrection intended to overthrow the government, using school massacres as the "civil disobedience" to draw attention to social inequality and oppression. An argument can be construed McLaw intends to incite school violence to address inequality, but fails the separation in time and place imminent lawless action test of literature's potential incitement to lawlessness. Besides, the writing will bore the life out of the target audience, if they read at all anyway.

Note should be taken Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games saga portrays a similar insurrection theme though lesser by degree of violence and not in schools. Yet no one has publicly pointed to it as an indicia of a disturbed writer, nor gone very far in publicly accusing the saga of being an incitement to imminent lawless action.

[ September 11, 2014, 01:40 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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TaleSpinner
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With regard to MattLeo's post, according to Wikipedia, there are independent reviews in American involuntary commitment procedures. They vary around the USA, and Maryland mandates judicial review initially, and then that "The patient may be kept in the hospital for up to thirty hours. If by then two physicians, or one physician and one psychologist then decide that the patient meets the Maryland criteria for an involuntary psychiatric admission, then he or she may be kept inpatient involuntarily for up to ten days." Beyond that, an administrative judge determines if the criteria for longer term commitment are met, and these include being a danger to himself or others.

More here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Involuntary_commitment#Maryland

It seems to me that the Maryland authorities are concerned about several factors, not only the books, but also the four page letter to his employers which he says is his "declaration of independence" - the extract one can see in the TV clip does not specify from what, exactly, he plans to be independent but since it's a letter written to the school, does he mean independence from laws and regulations governing the school? We don't know - was he defending his books, or was he writing of other issues?

Another factor that was reported as concerning them was the models of schools he appears to have made - and if the books were written before his employment at the school, why model it? As preparation for some kind of attack? As McLaw says, this could be a misunderstanding.

The Atlantic portrayed the case inaccurately and emotively as an attack on freedom of speech. Nobody said he should not write his books, just that they were a factor being considered, by police and medical practitioners governed by Maryland law.

As for law enforcement protecting free speech against a mob, there were no reports of a mob. There was a school in receipt of a four page letter from one of its teachers, concerned for the safety of its pupils. If "mob" refers to the school managers, it's an emotive term that's inappropriate.

If the Sheriff is up for re-election, isn't that an independent review, by the people, of his effectiveness in policing the community?

If McLaw wins his release he will be free to continue writing and distributing his books. He might, though, find it hard to win the confidence of school boards and parents should he wish to continue as a teacher and that's a choice for him.

There have been discussions before at Hatrack initiated by writers who fear for their jobs and are considering pen names. Whether to write such material and risk the consequences is for the writer and his or her conscience. As the writer is free to write, so employers are free to employ whomever meets their requirements - which often include trust and confidence.

There's much we don't know, and can't know until or unless the case is resolved. The Atlantic had no firm evidence that freedom of speech was under attack, should know that there are legal and regulatory controls over commitment proceedings, and should have reported the facts, if it should have reported anything at all.

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Grumpy old guy
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quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:
and if the books were written before his employment at the school, why model it? As preparation for some kind of attack?

Or perhaps he has a fascination with educational architecture and he was making architectural models?

Why assume the worst? Because it makes a more sensational story rather than investigating the tawdry idea of internal school politicking and an incompetent Sheriff looking for re-election? I mention the last because the Sheriff should know better than to comment about the details of a case that is sub judice.

As far as I can tell, no one here knows the actual details and facts of the case aside from those reported in the popular media, a source about as reliable as a broken wheel.

Perhaps McLaw will join the ranks of Solzhenitsyn and The Marquis de Sade to name just two persecuted writers that most of us should be aware of. Or perhaps not, unless his writing style improves--apparently.

Phil.

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TaleSpinner
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Why assume the worst? I've done risk management in the context of business continuity and information security and the principles are universal: if you don't at least consider the worst, you get poor risk management, of which the BP Gulf disaster is one of the worst in recent times.

But you're right; neither I nor the Atlantic considered the possibility that this is truly, as McLaw says in his TV interview, a misunderstanding. (Well I did, kinda, in a previous post, but chose in this one just to raise the possibility.)

And the writing process at newspapers is designed to cause maximum anxiety in order to sell them, in this case by pretending that freedom of speech is under attack.

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extrinsic
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The school model as well as the Columbine massacre literature in McLaw's home could be writing research for the novel and sequels. Asking that classrooms be switched so that one closer to an entranceway and exit for easy ingress and egress could as a stretch be for research too, perhaps for quick and innocent arrivals to and departures from a hostile workplace. Yet could also be as sinister as suspicious minds make it.
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Grumpy old guy
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I've also done risk management in the context of natural and man-made disasters, both at the theoretical level and actually being involved in hands-on mitigation in the case of bush fires (wildfires to you guys in the USA).

There is a difference between being aware of the risk and rhetorically questioning the possibilities of adverse outcomes in the context of a developing public hysteria concerning the possibility, however remote, of a mass shooting.

To paraphrase a quote from Dragnet, "Just give us the facts, ma'am." Then, let us come to our own conclusions. Unfortunately, the facts seem to be getting in the way.

As for story research, extrinsic, I could very well be arrested and questioned about certain research materials I have gathered together over the years. Reminds me of the time I was questioned by ASIO because I worked for both the Czech and Romanian governments during the cold war. I can honestly say that I'm the only person I know who's had his boss put up against a wall and shot on a Xmas eve.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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I'm sure a few of us have horror stories. Some secrets cannot be told: Cold War, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, military, government, corporate, political, underworld, social. I've got a few.

I worked with a serial rapist-murderer back when. He gave off an ugly vibe. The precipitating event for his capture--I caught him stealing from the workplace. A slip of his tongue while detained for the theft opened up leads to an investigation of his predation upon a dozen young women--rape, torture, murder--over a decade. He was eventually executed.

That's not the least of my horror stories, most of which I cannot share. I've lived peripherally between the superficial, safe "real world" and the shadowy worlds that would singe most folks' fright-stood-up neck hair.

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JSchuler
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
To paraphrase a quote from Dragnet, "Just give us the facts, ma'am." Then, let us come to our own conclusions. Unfortunately, the facts seem to be getting in the way.

A couple years ago, just out of curiosity, I looked up the journalism class offerings for Columbia University--often the top ranked journalism school in the US--and the course descriptions pretty much explained why journalism is the failed profession it is today. "Narrative" was everywhere, "fact" not so much. Here's a particularly egregious example from the Fall 2014 module:
quote:
Narrative Writing: The Rise and Fall Story

...This course will teach you how to identify, report and write with verve such a time-honored narrative. The genre’s typical story arc is as old as Greek and Elizabethan tragedy. It involves, usually, a woman or man in public life who enjoys success, succumbs to hubris, and is laid low. In modern times, such a reader-friendly story might evolve out of a murder trial, an insider trading indictment, a high-flying Silicon Valley bankruptcy, or the firing of the first female editor of the New York Times. We will break down and diagram magazine-length examples of the genre such as Jim Stewart’s recent New Yorker epic on the collapse of one of the world’s largest law firms. We will learn how to map out a story’s chronology; how to choose a lead and then drive toward a narrative climax; and how to interview and report from multiple sources so as to serve writing that is brisk, well-ordered, accessible, character-driven, and enlivened by specific scenes and dialogue.

So there we have it. We are teaching prospective journalists how to turn reality into fiction.
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extrinsic
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I know that course description as creative nonfiction, which emulates fiction. New Journalism also emulates fiction, includes journalist's self-involved interests, influences: agency. Gonzo Journalism started by Hunter S. "Gonzo" Thompson contributed to New Journalism's emergence. Old-fashioned objective journalism is a lost art, though, though a "voice" that has as well crossed over into fiction narrative.

Gossip news -- talk television show and tabloid journalism and Internet chatter -- is a response to limited audience attention spans, not from loss of ability per se, but from an ever more easily distracted public with many media channels competing for our attention.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by JSchuler:
We are teaching prospective journalists how to turn reality into fiction.

Makes me wish for a "Like" button for this forum even more.
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Robert Nowall
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Columbia in general has been kinda held to be a hotbed of a certain kind of politics...and objections to what and how they teach journalism, and the product turned out from the journalism school have been fairly loud.

But good non-fiction does have good narrative---you just can't ignore inconvenient facts in writing the narrative up.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:

Another factor that was reported as concerning them was the models of schools he appears to have made - and if the books were written before his employment at the school, why model it?

The problem here is you are trying to correlate two very rare behaviors (model building and school shooting). So far as I know these two things have never been seen together.

This is something good for writers to think about: we believe we are totally objective in how we weigh evidence, but in fact our interpretation of a piece of evidence is mostly dependent upon our beliefs prior to encountering it. The validity of our interpretation therefore depends upon how true our prior beliefs are. This could be an excellent source of story conflict.

For example your starting level of belief that some acquaintance of yours is planning mass murder is going to be very, very low. If you happened to see a model of a school in his house you might think he has an interest in architecture or model building. If you knew that acquaintance was a teacher you might think it is some kind of teaching prop. Knowing that he was a writer you might well conclude he's doing the model for research. What you almost certainly wouldn't conclude is that he was planning a school shooting. And you'd almost certainly be right: school shooting is an exceedingly rare behavior in the general population -- certainly more rare than other explanations, such as the person simply liking to build models. As eccentric as that may be, the world holds many more people with eccentric hobbies than it does mass murderers. People who build electronic circuits as a hobby have on multiple occasions been arrested on suspicion of making bombs.

On the other hand, if you knew *for a fact* that someone had been planning a school shooting, a model of the school in his house would almost certainly be related to those plans. If you were told to search someone's home for evidence that he might be planning a shooting, finding the model would make a powerful psychological impression -- the same impression that it would if you actually knew he'd been planning a shooting. But *mathematically* these situations are not the same at all. Knowledge and suspicion are two different things when it comes to assigning likelihoods.

Some evidence is by its nature simply not probative of any particular conclusion because it leads in too many plausible directions. For example if you wanted to set off a large fertilizer bomb you'd need to rent something like a large van. But renting a large van is not evidence of your planning to detonate a bomb.

Conditional probabilities like this screw people up all the time. The probability that someone has electronics paraphernalia given that they're making a bomb is high; the probability that someone is making a bomb given that they have electronics paraphenalia is tiny. The probability that someone has a gun collection given that he is planning a shooting is high; the probability that someone is planning a shooting given that he has a gun collection is very low -- certainly lower than people unfamiliar with the gun hobby might think. The probability that a novelist who is violently deranged will write disturbing novels is high; but the probability that a novelist who writes disturbing novels is violently deranged is almost nil.

This ignorance of basic probability is why hysteria is contagious and is a major corrupter of public opinion.

[ September 10, 2014, 09:27 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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TaleSpinner
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I'm not ignorant of basic probability theory, nor am I "trying to correlate two very rare behaviours." (This is an example of reading into a writers writing - mine - what he did not intend, kind of ironic in this context!)

I am asking questions that I imagine the school managers and police asked. I thought this thread was about whether freedom of speech was under threat. It isn't; that's a fiction created by the Atlantic.

One report said that the books were one "factor" taken into consideration. Other factors included, according to the newspaper reports, the models and probably more importantly the four page letter - not to mention what McLaw actually said when challenged.

Events like this are beyond basic probability theory. Take a look at "black swan theory", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

The idea that given risk has not happened in the past and therefore won't happen in the future is naïve, and a poor basis for sound risk management. You want that we should wait for the time when there have been sufficient mass murders in schools for probability theory to help before proactively avoiding them using, not deductive but inductive logic?

It's true that there is a lack of understanding of statistics in the public mind. Right or wrong, it's there.

So if - if - there had been a shooting, questions about factors like the books, models and most of all the letter would have been asked.

Caring for the safety of children and communities isn't all scientific. In this case, the fictitious - or at least, emotively reported - reports do not tell us what was actually going on. one thing is for sure, though: freedom of speech (the topic of the thread as I understand it) is not under attack. There is no evidence that what he wrote, by itself, was cause for involuntary commitment - it's simply not on the list of criteria for such in Maryland or, I bet, anywhere in the USA's fifty states.

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TaleSpinner
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I should have said that the widespread, poor understanding of statistics is well-known to the more sophisticated journalists and they learn to trade upon it in their fictionalised accounts of events. They don't call their pieces "stories" for nothing.

Dressing facts up with emotive words is one such technique, just as fiction writers make us scared of antagonists by having protagonists themselves scared.

For managers of public institutions, police forces and the like, there is no opportunity for them to educate everyone. They have to deal with the climate of fear that such "journalism" creates and the hysteria it provokes.

If there's a shooting, they know that everything will be "investigated" by "journalists" looking for people to blame. So even though things like letters, models and books may well be innocent (let's hope in McLaw's case they are), they'll surely feel bound to ask questions - which, it seems to me, were provoked by the four page letter, not some kind of Orwellian police search of Amazon for books they thought were dodgy.

In this case the reports indicate that McLaw is in a mental health institution, governed by Maryland law - governed such as to protect the freedoms that the US constitution guarantees, but balancing those freedoms against society's need to protect sick individuals from themselves, and us from them.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:

Events like this are beyond basic probability theory. Take a look at "black swan theory", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory

You seem to be missing the point of Mr. Taleb's theory. The point is that you have to prepare for high impact events even if they are rare and unpredictable. That doesn't mean we should try to predict them using non-scientific methods. It means we should just plan for them happening.

It seems to me this "black swan" idea has much potential for mischief if misapplied. The most tempting way to misapply it would be to sweep in irrelevant detail, because that's a way of sneaking into the prediction racket, which is precisely what we're not supposed to do. Let's a agree that a school shooting is a "black swan" event. A school shooting by a dystopian novelist who builds architectural models in his spare time is *not* a black swan event; it's not an event we should try to prepare for. Instead we should prepare school shootings by *anybody*. Otherwise you're attempting to profile under the guise of "preparation".

quote:
Originally posted by TaleSpinner:
Caring for the safety of children and communities isn't all scientific. In this case, the fictitious - or at least, emotively reported - reports do not tell us what was actually going on. one thing is for sure, though: freedom of speech (the topic of the thread as I understand it) is not under attack.

Of course free speech is not under attack. Not the kind of attack where people get up and say "let's give free speech the old heave-ho." Because that never happens. Everyone is *for* free speech. It's when free speech comes into conflict with other needs like "protecting the children" that things get dicey. Just thinking you're doing it for the children, or for national security is not justification in itself. You've got to crunch the numbers, black swans notwithstanding.

Protecting children may not be entirely about science and statistics, but those should be the first place we look for guidance. I have a younger relative who doesn't vaccinate her babies because she's afraid they'll catch autism. Her concern for her children is sincere, but she'd do a better job protecting them if she listened to the National Academy of Science than a pack of web witch doctors.

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