Monkey Mind: On Nick Flynn, Bewilderment, Torture and the Circus

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In Nick Flynn’s memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, he introduces  the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind,” the restless, bewildered, unsettled mind.  It is also the structure he adapts for the book.  Like a monkey swings from one branch to the next, Flynn’s memoir  swings from one story fragment to another.  It is a book about torture and impending parenthood; about reading and relationships. These seemingly disparate pieces echo and resonate with one another when juxtaposed (with great care and craft). The pages reveal a mind responding to all that he is reading, witnessing and feeling. ( Flynn quotes Fanny Howe:  “Bewilderement is a way of entering the day ”)

What I am drawn to in narratives is the intersection of the personal and the political.  How does violence  on a global level, or an intimate level, affect our lives, and how do we reconcile and respond to these injustices?

Flynn received an award from PEN for his first memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the same night Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith won a sister award from PEN.   Flynn did not know then that Harris’ book advocates  torture, and what bewilders him even more was that Harris was given an award by a human rights organization for it.

Later, Flynn has the opportunity to go to Istanbul and meet with an Abu Ghraib ex-detainee, “Amir.”  “Now if asked, I’ll sometimes say, I went to Istanbul to bear witness, though at the time I was somewhat bewildered as to my role,” Flynn writes.

One of the parts of the book I found most interesting  is Flynn’s anyalysis of Standard Operating Procedures, the film and book project by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch. There is further corresponence between Flynn and Gourevitch on his website here. Flynn’s main criticisms are that Morris and Gourevitch take the story of the torturers at their word, and refer to the victims by the often times derogotary nicknames the military police gave them and not by their real names or dignified aliases.  And in one particular controversial passage, it seems Gourevitch suggests that the pictures look worse than things really were.  Flynn writes to Gourevitch:

I met with several of the Iraqis depicted in the photographs last year, including the one the MPs nicknamed “Gus,” the man on the end of Lynndie England’s leash, who I will refer to here as “Amir.” In the MPs version of that night, as reported in SOP, Graner is concerned with the well-being of Amir, of how to move him without injuring him, which led to using the “tie-down strap.” As I read this I assumed that Mr. Gourevitch was merely allowing the MPs enough rope to hang themselves, as it were, but Gourevitch concludes with this: “Once we learn Shitboy’s story, however, the pictures of him with Graner and Frederick become relatively anodyne. With Gus and the tie-downstrap, the opposite is true: even when we find out the story, the pictures of him with England remain shocking—only now the shock lies in the fact that the pictures look worse, more deliberately deviant and abusive, than the reality they depict.” (p148)

I had finished Flynn’s book the same day I read an article about the circus in Mother Jones, by Deborah Nelson.   My  restless literary animal mind couldn’t help but recognize the shadows of this discussion of torture in other contexts. Where there are incidences of violence and abuse, often times narratives of defense and denial emerge.

In the “Cruelest Show on Earth“, Nelson examines the abuse of elephants in Ringling Bros, and the difficulty in getting justice.  Here too, there are “standard operating procedures:”

“There’s no way to control an elephant without an ankus,” and the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t prohibit it, he [USDA legal counsel] explained. Maybe a time will come when bullhooks, chains, and “elephants getting paraded around doing unnatural things” is prohibited, he said, but until then, litigating abuse is difficult.

And there is denial:

But all five trainers and handlers named by Ewell and Stechcon denied abusing elephants or ever seeing anyone else do so. “I have a very good relationship with the elephants, especially the babies Benjamin and Shirley,” Harned told the investigator. “There is no abuse of any of the elephants. I treat these elephants as my children.””

Ted Friend, a professor of animal sciences at Texas A&M University, took the stand for the defense. He testified that the elephants likely enjoyed the train rides, because the long hauls satisfied their “nomadic” urge to roam—a theory Friend said he based on aUSDA-funded study that he had conducted for the Journal of the Elephant Manager’s Association. Under cross-examination, he conceded that the study had not been peer-reviewed, and that Feld Entertainment was paying him $500 an hour to testify—$100 more than his usual hourly fee and 10 times Ensley’s rate.

We see denial elsewhere too. In responding to cases of animal abuse at factory farms or in laboratories, sometimes the incidences are also referred to as anomalies, (“a few bad apples”), and not the norm.  Victims of abuse are not viewed as individual beings with dignity.  Sometimes industries complain that photos and videos may be taken out of context.  They don’t reveal what’s outside of the frame.

“Amir,” the victim of torture, also recognized the limitation of photographs: “This is what happened that night, he said, there were other incidents, other nights.”

As shown in the Mother Jones article, extreme denial can look absurd.  Perhaps that is what is most bewildering and unsettling to the mind:  when there is no moral outrage;  when a new narrative can emerge that renders another one invisible.

Meditating on the clinical language often times used to describe violent acts, I was reminded  by  a passage I read in Armies of the Night by Normal Mailer.  Mailer is discussing a Pentagon spokesperson who justified the use of violence against protestors:

“The spokesman was speaking in totalitarianese, which is to say , technologese, which is to say any language which succeeds in stripping itself of any moral content.”

Mailer further adds:

“There are negative rites of passage as well.  Men learn in a negative rite to give up the best  things they were born with, and forever.  However much must a spokesman suffer in a negative rite to be able to learn to speak in such a way?”

What does the  global denial of violence do to our collective psyches. While, there is defense and denial on one end of the spectrum, there is despair on the other.  If we accept these violent realities, it is a great burden—perhaps too large—for an individual to bear.  Despair is  denial of a different sort.  We deny ourselves the opportunity to feel and respond to what we know to be true.   The Ticking is the Heart.

To find a sense of peace, perhaps we shouldn’t be quieting the thoughts of our Monkey Minds, but acknowledging them.

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