A Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins

The problem with books at the airport is that they have the slime of corporatocracy all over them, that sludge of sleazy publishing houses with their marketing teams manipulating authors, titles, promotion, plots to engineer some best-selling pabulum.  For instance, Fifty Shades, and then all the rip off books whose covers looked like Fifty Shades.  The title of this book sounds like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I instantly thought of everything I hate about mass market books.  Then in one of the blurbs, they mentioned Gone Girl and unreliable narrators, and that pretty much gave away the notion that the female narrator was a nutter.  And you’re also going, I’m not their market.  I’m not those folks, you know, the ones who sit home all alone with no friends and some dead-end middling job, and their only escape are shallow, tired novels that overindulge on murder, vice, sin, and excess.  I was at an airport in Victoria when I picked up this book, found out the $22 Canadian was too much and went home and bought the Amazon eBook for $9.99 American.  But why?  I bought three novels at my local used bookstore, and I threw them all away, about $12 worth of books.  They were unreadable.  In fact, I can’t remember I came across a really good novel.  Okay, I had to look up my spreadsheet.  I rated Hunger Games a B+, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News a B+ and Curse of the Spellmans a B+ in the last year, no A’s.  I’ve noticed lately that I’m getting impatient with Netflix movies.  I often find myself checking out my Facebook during the movie.  Is it me or is it movies and novels these days or both?  If a movie or novel doesn’t grab me right away, I start to drift, and I start to skim, and then I just give up.  Even with movies, I’ll hit the fast forward button.  Are we just becoming a more impatient audience?  With Facebook, you check out an article or video, and within perhaps a few seconds, you know whether it’s good stuff or not, and then a few seconds later, it’s all over.  You get little nuggets of entertainment that you are always in control of.  With movies and novels, someone has to grab your undivided attention and keep it from the beginning all the way to the end.  But my attention isn’t becoming shorter, because I still enjoy reading 300+ page nonfictions.  In fact, sometimes Facebook entertainment nuggets gets tiresome sometimes, and sometimes I do want to focus on a single subject for hours on end instead of hundreds of subjects. 

 This book started off boring.  It’s a jaded middle-aged alcoholic woman putting on weight and feeling wronged by her ex-husband who left her for someone else.  From the initial description of the book, I envisioned her on a New York City commuter rail, but turns out she’s in London.  She mentions Euston station which is the end of a line for the London tube but must be the start of the line for a commuter rail.  Having been born in England and having visited there since, it reminded me of everything I hate about the place, the weather, the crowds, the expensive real estate, the reserved people.  When it rains a lot and you’re indoors a lot, it’s hard to socialize and make friends, and being out and about does help your psychology along with sunlight.  Having also been raised in Oregon, people there also suffer from the climate and are similar to the English minus the snobbery, history, overt classism, and cultural diversity.  You tend to spend a lot of time thinking to yourself, and this is when a lot of things go wrong, because the way we have been taught to think is not productive or efficient.  We have been taught to memorize and concentrate on disassociated trivial factoids, to obsess about results, grades, and finals instead of the process, and to minimize and disregard critical and creative thinking.  As a result, most people learn to obsess, to focus on their own thoughts and feelings, and generally become self-absorbed, entitled assholes.  We have been taught by twelve years of school and for some four years of college to be judgmental, dismissive, over-analytical, and obsessive.  And this is exactly what the narrator sounds like.  I once pined for the big city lights.  I once even dreamed about working for a corporation and climbing the corporate ladder, but all I saw were the ends, the big salary of the CEO.  I totally skipped over the process, the boring finance and accounting classes, the long hours of junior business analysts, the grind of corporate work culture, the office politics, the big city crime, the big city apartment prices, sharing an apartment with roommates, big city pests, big city noise, big city lack of privacy, etc.  You’re just a cog in the machine, and I’m actually glad I never took that route. 

 The book got interesting at about page 40 when the narrator finds herself in a Hangover situation, waking up with a bloody head, naked in her bed, not remembering five hours of her life the previous day.  Blacking out is an interesting phenomenon that I think should be researched further.  Is it a matter of your brain not being able to form memories?  So were you just drunk and stupid, but still conscious?  Or do go into a semi-conscious stupor?  When I’ve blacked out, I can function.  Somehow, I pay the bartender money.  Somehow I call a taxi and get home.  Somehow I pay the taxi driver.  Somehow I sometimes still enter drinks into my phone and I can also take photos.  So it’s not like I’m half-asleep.  But am I conscious in the moment, or am I totally on autopilot?  And then what is consciousness?  I can still talk, but do I form thoughts in my frontal lobes first, or does it all just come out as a stream?   

 There are three narrators in the book, Rachel, the alcoholic nutter, Megan, the neighbor of Rachel’s ex-husband who has gone missing, and then later on Anna, the wife of Rachel’s ex-husband.  Rachel is questioned by the police, because she’s been harassing her ex-husband and even walked into their home and took their baby. 

 Thinking about Rachel’s addiction to alcohol makes me wonder if there really are different parts to our psyche and how they compete for attention and dominance.  What if there is a trauma brain, a reptilian brain that gets activated during fight or flight situations?  What if trauma fuels this reptilian side of our psyche?  And what if this trauma psyche likes certain activities like listening to music, reading, art, drugs, alcohol, high-stress and high-danger activities?  It likes being in the moment, because our mind believes that at any time we can experience trauma again, and we need to hone this trauma brain?  We need to exercise it and fuel it?  High stress trauma is an event that we perceive to be an existential threat, life or death, and this is the most important danger for us.  As a result, somewhere deeply rooted in our DNA is a mindset that is reactive and just in-the-moment.  It doesn’t weigh long-term or social consequences, because it existed before we had the ability to conceive of the future or past and form social connections.  These are higher evolutionary abilities that helped us become more successful, but when we encounter life-and-death situations, the higher abilities take a back seat to the self-preservation trauma brain.  For some alcoholics, they like the feel-good buzz which must release endorphins or dopamine.  That is what they are addicted to.  But what if some alcoholics just like the feeling of living in the moment and inside the trauma brain?  What if spending time in the higher evolved brain which considers the future and past is upsetting, because the past is filled with trauma and the future is filled with the unknown and uncertainty?  Also, the source of trauma is social interaction, so thinking about possibly being hurt, embarrassed, wounded, humiliated, and disrespected is all you can think about.  What if that’s the reason some people drink, to return to the trauma brain?  This is not to say that all trauma victims are doomed to drugs and alcohol abuse, but it does indicate that they are more susceptible to them if they don’t have more healthy distractions or proper guidance and social support. 

 One thing I love about certain books is that they stimulate thinking, not necessarily on the subject they discuss but tangentially.  And so, I’m really thinking about consciousness and blackouts and blind spots.  This woman has an issue with consciousness.  It just makes her feel depressed and anxious, so she eliminated consciousness with drinking heavily.  But then this gives her blind spots.  We all have blind spots.  When we have another person double check our work, whatever it is, homework or our diet and exercise or our daily habits or our drinking habits, etc. we overlook stuff, and they point out glaring errors, omissions, or incongruities.  And if at some point, we are traumatized, it seems, we have larger blind spots, because we don’t like to think about certain things, so we keep missing key details or signs.  For instance, we enter a bad relationship, and since we don’t want to worry about it, we keep missing little signs that the other person is a total prick.  And this is why humans thrived.  We developed consciousness to eliminate blind spots, and we developed social networks to help us spot blind spots.  Of all the intelligent primates we competed against, we had the fewest blind spots and were able to capitalize on the blind spots of other intelligent primates.  We developed better hunting techniques, better weapons, better tactics, better shelters, better divisions of labor, better teamwork, etc.  But if we were traumatized, we lost it all.  We regressed to our reptilian trauma brains. 

 I think a lot of people are quite familiar with people who have been traumatized, because we really do live in a trauma inducing, trauma enabling society with insufficient social support to help us identify those blind spots and overcome our traumas in a healthy manner that does not create blind spots.  These people are sometimes completely clueless.  They might wear the most ridiculous, outdated fashion from decades ago, simply because nobody told them they looked outdated, and they never gave their appearance or fashion a second thought.  They might have the most ridiculous beliefs, like bigotry and spend hardly any time or thought about the consequences of their political beliefs.  Certainly, they may spend an inordinate amount of time on certain subjects they find safe, and hence, many of them do develop subject matter expertise, but they seem clueless in just about all other and mostly important matters in life.  And above all, they are antisocial, because the source of that trauma was most often another person which shattered their faith in other people.  So for the longest times, humans reduced their blind spots by developing conscious awareness of everything and working together, and then we just stopped doing that.  We created a hierarchical society where the folks on top brutalized, exploited, and traumatized those below them, so everyone started losing faith in each other and started reducing their conscious awareness with intoxicants or art or some obsessive indulgence, and everyone developed blind spots, often crippling blind spots.  I sometimes watch Dr. Phil, and the show is basically all about Dr. Phil uncovering people’s blind spots, and they are almost always in denial.  I once watched him talk to this old man who was being swindled by a woman in Mexico, and he was even taking money from his daughters to give to this woman who was saying she was sick.  Despite all the evidence presented that she was a swindler, this old man was convinced otherwise.  So the horrible thing about trauma is that it’s just a gift that keeps on giving.  Not only does it keep giving you nightmares and irrational fears and false fear signals, but it also induces you to undermine your conscious awareness and social connections. 

 Without giving away the ending, the book wound up as commentary about men and relationships which is interesting, because I just read a book about relationships.  The book basically convinced me that the root of the problem with relationships these days is that they’re all based on the concept of social hierarchies, that someone has to be either above or below you.  You cannot have a successful, healthy relationships with anyone you consider above or below you.  These days, people like to abuse the term alphas because we live in a hierarchical society.  They fail to realize that for the majority of human evolution, we did not live in a large hierarchical group.  Our strength was our ability to work collaboratively and this depended on our ability to consider each other as equals.  We also lived in monogamous relationships to raise our children.  Only relatively recently with the advent of agriculture did we invent the large hierarchies we have today, and our monogamous relationships have suffered.  People like to think that the high modern divorce rate means that women are liberated to get out of unhappy relationships, but they fail to understand why those relationships were unhappy to begin with.  They were unhappy, because in the Agrarian Era, women were considered property of men and not equals, just as we considered cattle the property of humans instead of wild animals as free and only ours when we hunted and consumed them.  Once we realized that we could enslave animals, it was a short mental leap to consider enslaving each other including all women and children. 

 Today’s alphas are not even true alphas.  They are not the strongest, fastest, smartest, or even the most resilient or crafty.  They are simply the most anti-social, narcissistic, immoral, greedy, and willing to sell others down the river to further their status.  If we thrive and enjoy human relationships, it is virtually impossible for us to ascend the social hierarchy, because we do not view people as either above or below us.  It is only people who have bought into this bullshit idea who can ascend the social hierarchy and get to the top by both luck and pure willingness to commit moral atrocities.  Think Trump and Hillary.  This is the logical conclusion to a social hierarchy.  Along the way, you have unhappy marriages, because both are fighting each other for the higher position of authority.  People who are constantly arguing or correcting you and annoying you in the process are not just being innocently nerdy and trying to be logically correct but rather, they are trying to make you feel inferior.  They are trying to dominate you.  If you argue back, then you are trying to dominate them.  Simply avoiding people like this is the best route, but you won’t be able to ascend any social hierarchies by constantly disengaging from people who are trapped in the hierarchy scheme.  And increasingly, fewer people don’t believe in social hierarchies.  This is also the main reason we have violence and destruction.  Those above are allowed to bully, threaten, and even abuse and exploit those below them to enforce their authority.  If you think America has evolved past this with all our anti-violence workplace policies, think again.  There is sufficient violence inflicted by police officers to make up for all the pleasantries at work.  There is more than sufficient violence committed by our military as well.  America’s violence is a simple exhibition of force to enforce our authority as the top country in the world.  At the same time, those at the top use violence and destruction to sustain fear which runs the social hierarchy machine.  It pits the masses against each other.  If the masses treated one another with kindness and peace, they would ultimately find a way to work together and topple those on top.  If the masses are deathly afraid of each other and commit violence upon one another, then all the more incentive to climb the social hierarchy to the safety of the top rungs.  On the eve of Trump’s victory, the bias against liberals and people of color is obvious, but what about the bias against poor, rural whites?  I also just read a book called White Trash that explains how the ruling elite disenfranchised poor, rural whites and then pitted them against blacks and now immigrants while pitting urban liberals against the poor, rural whites.  If the masses would just work together, they could topple the ruling class.

 What is left are books like this, the tragically comical crime thrillers that is nothing more than Jerry Springer married to Special Victims Unit.  I guess it’s macabrely entertaining to someone.  I would like to think that if there is some greater intelligence overseeing humanity, that all this nastiness is simply growing pains, the necessary evil of getting us to a better place.  But what if it is all manufactured to entertain them?  What if they think of us as cock fighters?  What if they pit us against each other to watch us rip each other apart?  While this book was entertaining like watching a car wreck, ultimately, it was junk food.  It tasted great while I read it, but it was ultimately a toxin to my psyche and undermined my ability to trust others and believe in marriage and relationships.  And that is what Jerry Springer and crime shows do.  Certainly, they appeal to their audience, because they ring true and familiar, just like an abuse victim is drawn to abusive personalities or drugs.  But freewill means you don’t have to be a cliché trauma victim.  You don’t have to wind up with a loser and become a drug or alcohol addict.  I recently read an amazing quote from a roller derby skater on Facebook, and I’m wondering if she might have borrowed it from a book or some other source.  We fill ourselves with false choices, little lies, when we are afraid but are unwilling to admit it.  In her case, she was always afraid of getting a tattoo, but instead of admitting it, she lied to herself and just said, she wasn’t a tattoo kind of person.  We do this all the time.  If we don’t like to jog, we just say, we’re just not into jogging.  We give ourselves these false choices that are not choices at all but excuses.  Freewill is facing your fears and accepting them and accepting that you may not be ready to overcome your fears, but you are open to choosing to overcome them when you are ready.  It is okay to be afraid, but if you create a false choice, the illusion that you have no choice but to avoid what you fear, you relent your freewill to your fears.  I can always choose to lead a more healthy and socially enriching life, and I am working on it, but fact is, I choose unhealthy options and I choose not to pursue certain meaningful relationships which leaves the door open to one day walk through it.   

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