The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

We are social creatures.  We are one of the most socialized creatures ever.  Unlike most animals, we are completely helpless without adult humans teaching us everything we need to learn to survive.  We have built in mimicking mechanisms that compel us to copy everything people do.  Even as babies, we mimic the facial expressions of adults.  While psychological studies and social experiments mock us for conforming to the odd or illogical behavior of other people in the room, fact is, this mimicking tool allows us to be socially cohesive, and working as a cohesive team, we have out-competed other primates for global dominance.  That being said, we live in the most anti-social times of our evolutionary history.  Countless humans live miserable solitary lives where they don’t trust others and are incapable of forming trusting bonds with others and are happy to spend most of their free time alone despite their misery and emptiness.  But let us make one thing clear.  Being a loner is not natural for humans as much as it is not natural for dogs.  Something obviously went wrong in their lives, and speaking as a former miserable introvert, I know what.  When we moved into the Agrarian Age, we also adopted hierarchies to distribute the surplus of grain which later became replaced by the concept of wealth and money.  We put a group of people in charge of protecting and distributing the grain, and they became royalty, a concept that justified their privilege.  This was the first step in brainwashing the masses that still exist today.  The concept of royalty could not last long, because as we became more educated, it became impossible to continue brainwashing people into believing that royal people had any greater privilege than the rest of us.  (The British are a fine example of how brainwashing has deep cultural lingering impacts.)  However, we failed to realize that royalty also invented government as a tool to protect wealth and enforce the redistribution of it.  It became a psychological buffer.  You could hate government but still love the royal family.  However, when we got rid of royalty, we kept government, and somehow, they convinced the masses that the government, under the control of the representatives of the masses, would become a kinder, gentler mechanism (of protecting wealth and enforcing the redistribution of it).  The new lie was that government no longer served the royal family for their pleasure but rather it would now serve the masses as some magical fatherly figure that feeds, protects, helps, nurtures, educates, empowers, and employs the masses.  The ultimate fantasy of government as supreme nurturing parent was Communism, and far from nurturing and empowering, history informs us that Communism was nothing more than a human meat-grinder.  The lesson we failed to understand was that government was created by royalty to oppress the masses and redistribute wealth to those in control of government.  With new leaders, like a mindless guard dog, it didn’t magically turn into a nurturing parent, it remained a mindless guard dog and attacked and bit the masses but now with a much longer leash since the masses now believed that a dog with a longer leash would spread even more love.  Instead, it now had the freedom to do more of what it was designed to do, that is, attack and bit the masses.

 What I’m getting at is this.  We are now the most anti-social group of humans ever to own the heritage of human DNA, because we live in a society that believes in hierarchies and government as a friend and omnipotent nurturing parent.  Our schools have not taught us life skills and social skills but rather skills of thoughtless obedience and conformity not to small groups of loved ones but rather conformance to the system of hierarchies.  Genetically designed to conform, we feel compelled to go along with this ruse.  However, we find ourselves distrusting of each other and aspiring to climb this hierarchy where we worship celebrities and the wealthy elite on top and many of us would also vote for a psychopathic billionaire or lifelong bureaucrat.  So what the hell does this all have to do with this book?  This book is written by an anti-social introvert, a victim of the system.  I try my best to read at least the first 50 pages of a book or skim the first 100 pages, and then if I still hate the book, I stop reading it.  That was the case here.  I know the author is an introvert, because at the back, I read an interview with the author where she admits hating small talk and hanging out at social events.  This is the hallmark of introverts who simply don’t understand that small talk, while mentally stifling, is the necessary social lubricant for initial social interaction.  You can’t just jump from park to 3rd gear.  You have to go through the gears with strangers.  People who revel in telling strangers their life story, jumping from park to 5th gear, are neither to be trusted nor likely to be good company in the long run. 

 As a former introvert, I can tell you that if you continue to shelter yourself from others, you are basically limiting your social sphere and history and influences to your family, often the very family that screwed your head up in the first place.  What better remedy than to replace your family’s social influence than exposing yourself to hundreds of other people who, chances are, are not as negative influence as your family?  Fortunately for me, 90% of the people I’ve met in life are better influences on me than my family, so I have much greater faith in strangers than in my family.  Unfortunately, for most introverts, they will never jump the wall and find this out.  And as such, it seems to me, if you don’t have faith in strangers, you are more likely to believe in a political system whereby government controls strangers, the masses instead of a system whereby strangers, the masses are given much more freedom and self-determination.  As a former introvert, I also happen to know that while you consider yourself of greater moral righteousness than average, because you can observe the masses as one mindless automaton conforming to cultural norms which undermine their individual moral compasses, in fact, you are often the less moral person, because morality in essence, is a system designed to uphold social cohesion, and not having much of a social life, you don’t use this tool as much as you would like to think you do.  In fact, often times, especially in dealing with conflict and argument with others, you would rather do the less moral thing and berate and humiliate others for what you believe is the pursuit of truth. 

 This novel starts out with the narrator murdering her old and ailing mother.  And so begins the untrustworthy narrator.  Such a hip thing these days.  One might argue that killing a sick and old person suffering from dementia is merciful, but the problem here is consent.  If the old person previously consented to being suffocated by a pillow should they suffer dementia and fail to live independently, that’s one thing.  But what gives you the right to decide whether another person should live or die?  If the old person was suffering greatly and there was no chance of a cure, that would also be another thing.  The problem here is that nothing stops the perpetrator from doing it out of self-interest.  Maybe the murderer didn’t like taking care of her mother, wiping off her poop, feeding her, etc.  Maybe she wanted to sell her mother’s house and take the cash proceeds.  In my opinion, morality is based on social instincts.  It’s a cohesive.  It’s a construct designed to make us more socially cohesive, so you should always ask, what is the outcome.  Is the outcome greater social cohesion or less?  A book I just read called The Forest People provided some rather unique lessons in morality and social mores.  If you were wronged by someone, you should pursue justice.  That person should be punished if they wronged you.  However, if you make too much of a loud, boisterous show trying to argue your point, this is actually a worse crime.  The reasoning is that you are creating more of a social problem than the person you are accusing.  Now, obviously, there are all sorts of problems with this, and yes, morality is a fuzzy logic thing.  For instance, a century ago, we discriminated against women, blacks, and gays.  A century ago, if you rallied in support of equal treatment for women, blacks, and gays, you would have received little support, so you would get louder and louder and louder until you become more of a social problem and threat to social cohesion.  Now, of course, you’re saying, so what.  Good for you, screw social cohesion.  But fact was, you would be considered the bad person.  However, if enough people took up the cause and didn’t give in, then a tribal leader might say, look, obviously, a large enough group of people feel wronged, they are making noise and won’t stop, so since there are not enough people to quiet them, we need to give this a second look.  Would giving in to their demands cause greater social conflict than trying to quiet them?  It’s the calculus of morality.  You may not think it’s right for people back in the day to try to quiet those supporting equal rights, but then let me ask you today about people who are arguing to decriminalize all drugs, give animals equal rights, stop eating animals, getting rid of national borders so all humans have equal access to the world’s wealthiest nations? 

 Fundamental to morality is the issue of social identification.  Social instinct makes us compassionate and caring but only to those whom we identify with socially.  In fact, it trumps DNA and species.  A human could easily kill another human who is threatening his dog since the human identifies more with his dog than a strange human.  Ask yourself.  If two people were dangling from a cliff, an American and a Malaysian, who would you save if you could only save one first?  What if it was a Malaysian who spoke perfect English and was attending an American university versus an American citizen whose parents were Indonesian and spoke broken English and lives mostly in Indonesia?  What if it was a Malaysian who was your college roommate versus an American stranger who lived on the other side of the country.  What if you were a 49er’s fan and it was a Brazilian who happened to love the 49ers and an American who was a Seattle Seahawks fan?  Fact is, our social instinct is a double edged sword.  While it makes us more compassionate to those with whom we socially identify, it can also make us especially cruel and vicious to those with whom we do not socially identify.  We dehumanize and vilify them or at least lack any kind of sympathy for them.  How do we feel about radical Islamists who say that all women should be property of men and not allowed to go anywhere in public without her husband?  If a bomb accidentally dropped on his house and killed him, would we care?  How do we feel about a Palestinian kid who lives in a refugee camp and his father was just abducted by Israeli intelligence because someone accused him of giving money to a terrorist organization? 

 In another vein, if you grew up oppressed, molested, abused, the victim of injustice and wrong-doing, would you identify more with a powerful society that is callously helping to arm dictators, or are you more likely to identify with the victims of a dictator armed by your country?  Or how about a robot with artificial intelligence that looks like a human with soft, latex skin versus one that looks like a large insect?  If they had identical programming and identical voices and personalities, which one would you identify with the most?  A lot of people make the mistake of saying that the qualification for equal moral standing is intelligence and the ability to feel pain and suffering.  But fact is, if there was a green blob with greater intelligence than humans with a greater sense of pain and suffering, would we care about that blob over say a human baby?  The only standard for morality is whether we socially identify with someone or something else, and that social identity is based on how much that thing or person can illicit compassionate feelings toward it.  This is based on both instinct and culture.  Instinctively, we do tend to prefer socializing with other humans, although, we are also predisposed to socialize with dogs and cats.  Culturally, we prefer to socialize with people of equal status and demography.  As open-minded and liberal as many people think they are, in truth, they gravitate toward people in their same income bracket and social standing.  A so-called enlightened Manhattanite may tell you that they talk freely with their Cambodian manicurist, Rwandan doorman, Jamaican waiter, or Pakistani cab driver, why don’t they invite them to their high class cocktail parties and art studio openings? 

 So the question here is whether I identify with the narrator, a middle-aged woman who just murdered her mother.  The answer is an emphatic no, and it makes it hard to listen to her talk about her life and thoughts and feelings.  There are two types of introverted author.  One goes out into the world and encounters amazing people who motivate them to write adventurous and amazing stories.  The other stays at home most of the time obsessing over their family lives, pretty much the only social exposure in their lives besides classmates and teachers.  Their tales are pathetic, boring, mundane, annoying, and petty.  While other introverts may praise their novels for putting in words the feelings and thoughts they’ve also experienced obsessing over their own family lives, I don’t read novels to look at myself in the mirror and keep saying, ‘amen’ because someone else feels what I have felt.  I like to experience a new and fresh point of view and experience beyond my own.  The latter is narcissism.  It’s the same as people who use social media not to explore the lives, photos, experiences of others but rather to spread around thousands photos of themselves.  This book is not thousands of photos of the author but thousands of words portraying herself and her state of mind and nobody else’s, including her mother whom she only considers a demented, inconvenient babbling corpse worthy of murder.


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