What Happened to Sophie Wilder? review

I am not Catholic and I never have been and I never will be. There isn’t much of Catholic doctrine that I find even remotely plausible and I find a great deal of it, at least when practiced strictly, repressive, disempowering and discriminatory (I mean this about the church as a whole, not individual Catholics).
That said, though, there is something that I have always found incredibly fascinating and even alluring about the pageantry of the church, the ritual of it all. I don’t understand that particular faith–which is fine, I don’t have to–but I do understand the appeal of the trappings of that tradition.
This is a long way of saying that when the titular character of Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder (http://www.politics-prose.com/book/%5Bmodel%5D-165), which I read in one long gulp on a spring evening, converts to Catholicism I found myself receptive. I also found myself puzzled and dismissive; it makes no sense to me to that, for example, premarital sex is a sin. But I was fascinated anyway by how Sophie found herself, suddenly and without warning, a strict Catholic, how she felt herself taken over by something she could not quite explain or name.
I suppose I should back up a little. The book is told in alternating viewpoints: first person from Charlie, who meets Sophie in a writing seminar in college, and third person, for Sophie’s chapters. Sophie is smart as all hell, an excellent writer–or at least we are led to believe this–and a dream girl for a certain kind of literary college boy. The novel traces the writing careers of both, Sophie’s marriage, the way she cared for her dying father-in-law, and Charlie’s squalid little life, rooming with his cousin Max.
Sophie’s conversion is a key component of the novel, and without it, obviously nothing else would have worked. I am a little surprised by myself and my adoration of this plotline; despite being a hardcore Unitarian Universalist I am, well, and UU, and therefore, like many hyper-liberals, sometimes dismissive of more orthodox faiths. This is not fair–though neither, of course, is the consistent subordination of women, or the covering up of child rape. But it is how I often react to strict religious beliefs and so even as I found myself frustrated with Sophie’s new beliefs I found that they also produced an interesting thought experiment: what else could she do? I find what Sophie had come to believe utterly unbelievable; there is nothing in it that I can give credence too. And yet, if Sophie had come to believe this, honestly and truly, well…
At any rate. My entire life I have made up stories, reframed things in my head, inserted myself into my favorite books, created narratives to make sense out of chaos. Sophie and Charlie do the same thing, focusing on what might make a good story, making up tales about the people on the street. I think this is something that a certain kind of person just does, out of necessity; we have to make sense of the world, and we do so through stories. Those of us who drink up books as if they are oxygen are probably especially prone to this sort of meaning-making.
The end of the book–I wish I could give it away–offers up even more questions about this sort of story-telling. Essentially, upon reaching the last page, the readers basically wonders what the hell just happened. This is not a situation that I usually like; sometimes I even think it is lazy writing. In this case, though, I found myself more fascinated than frustrated, because the ending itself focuses us in on the important question: who, exactly, is writing your story? Who gets to decide the ending?


Book Review: Death At Seaworld

Even if you’ve only known me for a short period of time you probably would be unsurprised to learn that I often don’t like people. Of course I like YOU! It’s just that I often find people–well, grown-ups, it’s rare that I don’t get along with a child–rather…awful.

One of the things that I find most awful about people is our seemingly endless arrogance. Now, look, I know I am more sensitive than some folks. Some, certainly not you, would even say neurotically sensitive. I became a vegetarian at eight because when I bit into a hot dog all I saw was bleeding pigs. So reading the fantastic nonfiction book Death At Seaworld was an engrossing, and heartbreaking, experience. I read the whole thing today and felt captivated all day; even when I put the book down, I found myself absorbed in the narrative, seeing killer whales even without closing my eyes. It’s a masterful book, marrying science and human drama.

Death At Seaworld is an account spawning multiple decades that culminates in the 2010 slaying, by the orca Tilikum, of Dawn Brancheau, his trainer. I am not going to try to summarize the entire history of orcas in captivity, because author David Kirby does it much better and more comprehensively than I could. Suffice to say it is an awful, awful history. There’s so much devastation in the ways that humans have ravaged the seas, and one clear way to see this (homonyms FTW!) is in the culling of wild whales for display. The book opens with the story of a 1991 attack in Victoria, BC, in which a trainer named Keltie Byrne was killed…by Tilikum. Interspersed with the story of Naomi Rose, one of the book’s heroines, as well as several other people, including former Sea World trainers, Kirby explains how Tilikum was captured. Kirby weaves Tilikum’s story into the story of a great many other killer whales who were culled from the wild, caught up in nets, one dragged for hours by a harpoon. The book continues with the stories of many whales once they were in captivity and on display. 

You should just read the book, rather than my telling you about all of the amazing research and stories that are part of this fabulous book, but I will tell you this: it is astonishingly sad. And what gets me the most is how incredibly obvious it is that Dawn’s death could have been prevented. For one thing, Sea World could have not taken Tilikum after he’d already killed one person. Or, after he killed surgically opened the scrotum of a man who snuck into SW, they could have added more precautions. SW appears to have been fairly open about the animal amongst the senior trainers, who were told that getting into the water with Tilikum was a death sentence. However, trainers were still allowed and even possibly encouraged to get NEAR Tilikum.

Now, look. I get it. If you told me I could go swim with a killer whale tomorrow, well, I’d likely say yes. I love aquariums. I like the zoo. And yet I have many ethical problems with them, and I believe more and more firmly that there are animals that should never be held captive. Ever. Elephants. Chimps. Dolphins. Great apes. Some sharks. And whales. and obviously those species that ARE held captive–which I’m still not super happy about–must be kept in the most ethical way possible.

The actual attack on Dawn was incredibly brutal and quite clearly a deliberate slaying. And hers, while the most dramatic, is not the only one. The book details many, many other orca-on-human attacks, so it’s not as though Tilikum was the only dangerous whale, and it’s not as though there was no history of attacks.

To be clear: I blame neither Tilikum nor Dawn for her slaying. It was brutal. It was also the natural consequence of our uniquely human hubris, our assumption that if we can capture and assert our authority over creatures who were here first–well, we should. 

That’s a dangerous attitude. You could ask Dawn to clarify that, but she’s dead. You could ask Tilikum, but years in captivity have made him insane. Of course, I think he already gave us his answer.

here is a great fact sheet