I am holed up in a tiny B&B about 7 miles outside Leicester in the village of Mountsorrel for four days. What can an international jet-setting man of my stature being doing in the Midlands you might ask? Well, I am reading a book – my book, “The Self Illusion” for an audio version. I was so unimpressed with the audio version of my last book, “SuperSense” that when the invitation to record the audio version of my new book was made, I jumped at the opportunity to give it my personal delivery. They said it would take four days and I reasoned that I would be done in two. I mean, how difficult is it to read a book? Especially one that you wrote yourself? Well, I have had a large helping of humble pie. Doing audio books is a really tough gig and I am lucky if I finish in the four days. We never appreciate how much we miss and slur our words when we read and the audiobook engineers pick you every lost syllable.
Pat (Archer) Gallimore and Me after a hard days reading
The studio in Syston where I am recording my book has an excellent set-up and I was totally surprised to discover that a fellow reader was none other than Pat Gallimore. When we were introduced, I knew she sounded re-assuringly comforting and very familiar. She explained that I might recognize her professional persona of Pat Archer. Gasp.. For those of you unfamiliar with “The Archers,” it is and has been the leading Radio Four soup opera for the past 60 years and Pat Archer is one of the main characters. The show has one of the strongest, most loyal fan bases in the world.
So Pat and I have been hanging out and discussing the difficulties of voice artists. I now have a new found appreciation of what they do and more importantly, the difficulty of understanding the written word. For example, I have a problem with the word, “similarly” and vow to avoid this in future books of mine. I dare say this will be the last time I do an audio reading of my book but it has been a valuable learning experience. But I have come to loath the sound of my own voice.
The atrocity committed last sunday in Afghanistan where Sgt Robert Bales allegedly murdered 16 incident civilians, of whom nine were children, is destined to be become one of the worst acts of senseless brutality in recent years. Of course, more have been killed in various incidences such as the suicide car bombs but there is something so shocking about a senior officer, a married father with two children of his own, losing control and going on a bloody rampage.
It is still too early to know and I guess that this blog is yet another example of premature speculation, but I was preparing a lecture on “The Self Illusion” where I discuss the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper. For 96 minutes on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1966, Whitman killed students on the University of Texas campus at Austen before he was eventually shot dead by police. What makes his rampage so unusual was that Whitman believed that he was not thinking rationally and that there was something making him commit the murders. He wrote in his suicide note,
“I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks…… After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”
And there was. His autopsy revealed a tumour in his limbic system that would have been consistent with rage and sudden mood swings. Other cases, I talk about in the book, include a pedophile who was discovered to have a tumor in his frontal lobes that would have impaired his impulse control. When the tumor was removed – his sexual perversion abated. However, when he started taking a sexual interest in children two years later, a brain scan revealed that his tumor had returned.
The lawyers acting for Sgt Robert Bales have begun to piece together a defense claiming that he was suffering from brain damage following a head injury that he sustained on a tour of duty in Iraq. It is not clear whether this will turn out to be correct. It may be that no such pathological evidence will show up in scans or neurophysiological measures. Even if there is some physical evidence of a disorder, will that make him less culpable? I expect most of us would regard brain damage as mitigating circumstances but what of others who suddenly lose control? Are they any less guilty? These are difficult questions about neuroethics but I doubt that any explanation is going to satisfy the Afghan people’s demand for justice.
I am generally a fairly liberal guy when it comes to religion. People believe all sorts of weird nonsense and fantasies but so long as they keep their beliefs to themselves and do not impose upon others then what’s the harm? Well, of course, that the problem, isn’t it? Especially when those others are not capable of making their own decisions about what to believe and practice.
So I was both shocked and saddened to hear about the death of an infant boy last September who contracted herpes after his circumcision by a rabbi using the ultra-Orthodox ritual known as metzizah b’ peh where the rabbi removes blood from the wound with his mouth. Where was this medieval ritual performed? Can you believe it took place in Brooklyn Hospital, New York? It’s unclear who performed the circumcision but it is not the first time infants have contracted herpes in this bizarre ritual. In 2004, three infants circumcised by Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer were determined to have contracted herpes, city officials said. In 2005, there was another infant death following this practice.
I am all for the importance of tradition as Topol would say, but enough is enough. No doubt the parents are distraught at losing their child but this ritual needs to be criminalized. Needless to say, the rabbi who is responsible for this is beyond contempt. He must have known that he had herpes at some point and he also must of known of the risk. I can’t really see any justification for allowing this practice to continue.