The ‘Cinderella Effect’ and the risks posed by stepparents to their stepchildren

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s research into the clearly identified risks that stepparents pose to their stepchildren has led to some of the most influential and path-breaking insights to emerge in the past three decades in the field of human psychology and evolutionary psychology.

Martin Daly
Martin Daly
Margo Wilson
Margo Wilson

The two Canadian-born researchers found overwhelmingly powerful evidence globally that stepparenthood has “turned out to be the most powerful epidemiological risk factor for child abuse and child homicide yet known.”

What’s more, they conclude in their influential 2002 paper, The Cinderella Effect: Parental Discrimination Against Stepchildren (1), that “non-violent discrimination against stepchildren is substantial and ubiquitous.”

Daly-Wilson graph on stepparent violence.
Daly-Wilson graph on stepparent violence.

Daly and Wilson turn to the research done widely in non-human species on Darwinian selection. Under this model of “the selfish gene,” the care of dependent young will ordinarily be directed selectively toward close relatives of the caretaker.

Daly and Wilson write that “psychological adaptations that produce discriminative parental solicitude vary between species, in ways that reflect regularities in each species’ ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA).”

According to Daly and Wilson, “there is nothing magical about parental discrimination: preferential treatment of one’s own young exists only where a species’ ecology demands it.” The two see no reason why the evolution of the human psyche would be excluded from this logic.

Daly and Wilson’s wealth of evidence

Daly and Wilson’s research provides clear epidemiological evidence, including the use of an archive of 87,789 validated reports of child maltreatment in the United States. They support their findings with dozens of peer-reviewed studies of stepparenting abuse across cultures that also find similar patterns of abuse and stress.

These findings have yet to be refuted in any serious peer-reviewed paper. They are constantly cited by critics, who fail to show any new evidence refuting their findings.

Daly and Wilson’s research also went well beyond lethal and abusive treatment of children by their non-genetic parents. The outcomes they list include show how medical care is restricted, education funding is withheld, and other forms of non-physical abuse and favoritism prevail. Some of the main findings include:

  • In several countries, including Canada and the United States, stepparents beat very young children to death at per capita rates that are more than 100 times higher than the corresponding rates for genetic parents.
  • Children under three years of age who lived with one genetic parent and one stepparent were estimated to be seven times as likely to be the victims of validated physical abuse as those living with both their genetic parents.
  • In a Korean study of schoolchildren in the 3rd and 4th grades, 40 percent of those living with a stepparent and a genetic parent were reported to be “seriously battered” once a month or more, compared to 7 percent of those living with both their genetic parents.
  • In Finland, 3.7 percent of 15-year-old girls living with a stepfather claimed that he had abused them sexually, compared to 0.2 percent of those living with their genetic fathers.
  • Consistent findings of research show that stepparents and stepchildren alike rate their relationship as less close and less dependable emotionally and materially, and that all parties in stepfamilies are less satisfied, on average, than persons living in intact first families.
  • Stepchildren suffer elevated rates of accidental injury, both lethal and nonlethal, from infancy onwards, likely because they are not monitored and protected as closely, and they experienced elevated mortality in general, not just from assaults.
  • Research in the island of Dominica has shown that stepchildren have chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is strongly associated with worse health outcomes in nearly all categories.
  • Numerous American studies, controlled for parental means, have demonstrated that children living with stepmothers do not receive the same regular medical and dental care than children living with their genetic parents.
  • Less money is spent on food in stepmother households.
  • Fiscal support from families for higher education is substantially reduced for stepchildren, even when both parental wealth and the child’s scholastic record are statistically controlled.

    Fantasy land, the Brady Bunch, bears little resemblance to the complex reality of stepparent and stepchildren relations.
    Fantasy land, the Brady Bunch, bears little resemblance to the complex reality of stepparent and stepchildren relations.

Weighing the evidence, Daly and Wilson also note that most stepparents also find pleasure helping to raise the children of their partners, and that many stepchildren are better off in stepfamily situations than those where the parent did not remarry. However, they write stepparents do not feel the same “selfless commitment” common in genetic parents.

In response to their critics, Daly and Wilson cite that literally “hundreds of self-help manuals for stepfamily members” all focus on the difficult issue of how to cope with the characteristic conflicts of stepfamily life.

Research continues to verify findings of Daly and Wilson

Other researchers besides Daly and Wilson continue to verify their findings. For example:

  • Schnitzer and Ewigman (2008) in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship found that children residing within households with adults unrelated to them had nearly six times the risk of dying of maltreatment-related unintentional injury. But risk was not higher for children in households with a single biologic parent and no other adults in residence.
  • Stiffman, Schnitzer, et al. (2002) in the journal Pediatrics reported that children residing in households with adults unrelated to them were eight times more likely to die of maltreatment than children in households with two biological parents.
  • Harris, Hilton, et al. (2006), in a study of 378 cases of filicide (killing one’s son or daughter), found that at least five times as many of the child victims lived with genetic fathers, while the raw frequencies of filicide were roughly equal between stepfathers and biological fathers.
  • Tooley, Karakis, et al. (2005) reported that step-children under 5 years of age were at a significantly increased risk of unintentional fatal injury of any type, and of drowning in particular. They also reported that children from single-parent families were generally not found to be at significantly increased risk of intentional or unintentional fatal injury, while children who lived with neither of their biological parents were at greatest risk overall for fatal injury of any type.
  • A 2008 Scottish Government study found that living in a “reconstituted” family with step-children or stepparents increased the risk of developing behavioral problems.

The danger of ignoring the myth (that is backed by evidence)

The evil stepmother is universal and old as a myth, and research shows there is truth the folk stories rooted in evolutionary psychology.
The evil stepmother is universal and old as a myth, and research shows there is truth the folk stories rooted in evolutionary psychology.

The research by social scientists and epidemiologists undermines the Brady Bunch myth of a balanced family involving parents and children with no genetic relations—the guys in this family having no genetic relations to the girls. The more appropriate model to discuss the validty of research is the older and still maligned trope of an evil stepparent, notably the stepmother, as clearly acknowledged by Daly and Wilson in referencing Cinderella in their research title.

The wicked stepmother is a frequent character in folklore. This myth is older than feudalism, and found globally. The darker Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella (Aschenputtel) has her stepmother’s cruelty on full display, compared to simply wickedness in the Disney rendering. A recent cinematic evil stepparent was captured in the classic Cold War film thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which included an evil stepfather in partnership with his Soviet spy wife to manipulate her son to kill a presidential candidate and advance a dark Soviet conspiracy.

Evil stepfathers also exist in fiction, myth, and, sadly, real life for some families, but not all. This is the evil stepfather from The Manchurian Candidate plotting to take over the presidency with his wife, using her son as the patsy assassin.
Evil stepfathers also exist in fiction, myth, and, sadly, real life for some families, but not all. This is the evil stepfather from The Manchurian Candidate plotting to take over the presidency with his wife, using her son as the patsy assassin.

Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, notes that myths incorporated the tools that people used, and those tools are associated with power systems that are involved in the culture of their time. In the case of the trope of the evil stepparent, the myth has not been supplanted. Evidence shows otherwise. It is still alive for good reasons.

Why this matters for policy makers

There continues to be great stepparents and foster parents, by the thousands. I know many great people in both camps. They deserve praise for doing a job that may have few rewards and tremendous stress. I am in awe of those who I personally know (colleagues in Alaska).

However, policy makers, educators, law-enforcement agencies and social service agencies need to be reminded of very real risks of some family situations. The New Zealand-based nonprofit called Child Matters notes that having a stepparent is a known risk that should be considered for the well being of all children.

Efforts by “soft” social science publications, like Pscyhology Today, to downplay the valid research into the hazards stepfamilies can pose to innocent children do not help the group that needs the help most of all.

Our larger understanding of stepparenting should not, as Daly and Wilson write, “suffer from the misconception that a ‘biological’ explanation for stepparental violence is a claim of its inevitability and imperviousness to social controls, which, if accepted, will excuse the violence.”

They rightly claim that these misunderstandings block progress in understanding and helping kids. Acknowledging the evolutionary process and its relevance to human affairs can only help. I believe Daly and Wilson are spot in their claim that the most harm is done by “those who adhere to the implausible notion that stepparenthood is psychologically equivalent to genetic parenthood and that ‘bonding’ experience is sufficient to evoke the full depth of parental feeling.”

(1) Daly M & Wilson M (2002). The Cinderella effect: parental discrimination against stepchildren. Samfundsøkonomen 2002 (4): 39-46.

Viktor Frankl and the simple secrets to living a meaningful life

Viktor Frankl Photo
This photo of Viktor Frankl was taken shortly after his liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

Renowned psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer Viktor Frankl stands as a giant among 20th century thinkers. The Austrian-born Frankl (b. 1905, d. 1997) was a psychiatrist whose life was transformed by his experiences as a Jewish prisoner who survived the Holocaust and internment at the Auschwitz death camp and three other German concentration camps.

With the exception of a sister, all of his immediate and extended family and his beloved wife were murdered by the Nazis. From the aftermath of this horrific experience, he embarked on a life’s work that provided deceptively simple but remarkably clear ideas that literally provide a framework on how all people can live meaningful lives.

Frankl survived his brutal internment, which should have killed him, by seeing a purpose in his ugly reality and by taking control of his responses to that experience with positive actions and a mental attitude that ensured his survival and also his outlook on life and his fellow man and woman. His simple ideas offer no shortcuts, and they uncomfortably place each person in control of how they choose to respond to life’s challenges, even ones as unforgiving as genocide and mass murder.

Frankl proposes all of us are motivated to seek a higher purpose, even when our circumstances are as cruel as a death camp surrounded by barbed wire and vicious men armed with machine guns. Frankl writes: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone… .” More than pleasure, more than material things, meaning motivates us all. It is our purpose for being.

Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that changed modern thinking

Cover Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor Frank’s seminal 1946 Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, has been translated into more than 20 languages, has sold more than 10 million copies, and is considered one of the most influential books among American book readers.

Frankl published those principles in his highly acclaimed and influential 1946 memoir, Man’s Search from Meaning, which today has been translated in more than 20 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies. It is considered among the most influential books in the United States, according to a Library of Congress survey.

He originally developed the framework for his sparse set of powerful ideas when he was practicing psychiatry in Vienna before the Nazi occupation and saw how he could help patients overcome their suffering by making them aware of their life’s calling. His treatise, stashed in his coat, was literally lost when he was imprisoned.

Later in his life, when he had achieved global recognition because of the widespread popularity of his bestseller, he was asked by a university student: “…so this is your meaning in life… to help others find meaning in theirs.” His reply was as clear and direct as the theory behind his therapy, “That was it, exactly. Those are the very words I had written.”

As one writer influenced by Frankl, Genrich Krasko, points out, Frankl’s ideas are more prescient today, given millions have no meaning in their lives, particularly in affluent societies: “Viktor Frankl did not consider himself a prophet. But how else but prophetic would one call Frankl’s greatest accomplishment: over 50 years ago he identified the societal sickness that already then was haunting the world, and now has become pandemic? This ‘sickness’ is the loss of meaning in people’s lives.”

Logotherapy, Frankl’s foundational theory

Frankl called his system logotherapy, derived from the Greek word “logos,” or “meaning.” It has been called existential analysis, which may over-simplify its scope. The philosophy and medical practice boils down to providing treatment through the search for meaning in one’s life. Its utterly basic but ultimately powerful foundational ideas are easily summarized:

  • Life has meaning in all circumstances, even terrible ones.
  • Our primary motivation in living is finding our meaning in life.
  • We find our meaning in what we do, what we experience, and in our actions we choose to take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frankl notes, “Most important is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into triumph.” This latter point is particularly poignant, as it calls out the role that adversity can have in shaping us and our destinies and improving our character and our life’s narrative.

In short, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves, so long as we have a purpose, we can find fulfillment. What’s more, we are fulfilled by right action and by “doing,” not through short-term pleasure or narcissistic pursuits.

Frankl argues that meaning can be found in meaningful, loving relationships, in addition to finding it through purposeful work or deeds. In fact, it was the strong love of his first wife that kept him alive amid the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz. He felt her presence in his heart and it literally let him live when others around him perished.

Frankl’s core ideas at odds with more ‘accepted’ health and mental health paradigms

Frankl’s ideas collide with behaviorist models, which show that conditioning will determine one’s responses—the proverbial Pavlovian dog or Skinnerian lab rat. By contrast, through his own experiences and those he observed treating depressed and suicidal patients before and after the war in Vienna, Frankl claims that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

When faced with a situation, we all chose. But our power is defined by our actions. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he claims. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The concept of personal choice conflicts with extensive research that clearly documents how one’s environment, race, socioeconomic status, and more—the so-called social determinants of health (SDOHs)—shape one’s life more than one’s individualistic decisions.

A model explaining the social determinants of health.
A model explaining the social determinants of health.
Viktor Frank photo 1947
This photo of Viktor Frankl was taken two years after his liberation from the Nazis, when he returned to psychiatric practice to help people through his principles called logotherapy.

For two years, while earning my MPH at the University of Washington School of Public Health from 2010 to 2012, I found myself frequently and painfully at odds with current research and literally thousands of studies that proved to me that SDOHs will impact our lives in the most profound ways.

Yet I found the field and its most ardent practitioners lacking an explanation that showed the real power people have in controlling their personal outcomes. This is something that the public health field and my faculty sharply criticized by showing the medical model, which tells persons to control their health, has largely failed to promote wider population health metrics.

While I do embrace a “policy and systems” approach, I even more strongly believe that every person has the ability to make life-changing choices, every minute of every day—from the food they put in their mouth, to devices they watch daily, to the people they associate with, to the jobs they take or do not take (however awful often), to the way they manage their personal emotions. They have choices, and often they are cruel and brutally unfair choices, which often favor the privileged.

Frankl was famous for meeting with some patients, asking them to reflect on finding meaning in their lives over their entire life span, and providing the mental treatment they needed to take control of their lives without future interventions or drugs, which predominates the American model of mental health treatment. Some of his patients only required one session, and they could resolve to deal with life’s circumstances without any further intervention.

This is a radically and in fact dangerous model that challenges how the United States is grappling with mental illness nationally, though many practitioners use Frankl in their work. One psychiatrist I tweeted with wrote me back saying, “I’m far from the only one [using Frankl]! There’s a large humanistic community in the counselling/psychotherapy world.”

Frankl’s ideas continue to be studied, refuted, debated, and argued by learned and well-intentioned academics, which I think would amuse Frankl. He was more interested in the practical work of day-to-day living and less with becoming the subject of a cult following.

As one commentator I saw in a documentary who knew Frankl noted, Frankl was not interested in fame, otherwise he would be more famous today.

Paul Wong is one of many academics who have analyzed the ideas of logotherapy and mapped them in published work.
Paul Wong is one of many academics who have analyzed the ideas of logotherapy and mapped them in published work.

Here is just one example showing how theorists explain logotheraphy; see the table by Paul Wong on life fulfillment and having an ideal life.

Why Frankl’s thinking profoundly inspired me and thousands of others

For more than three decades, I have been wrestling with the concept of personal responsibility and the influence of our environment and systems that impact our destinies. Such factors include one’s family, country, religion, income, the ecosystem, our diet, and political and economic forces, among others.

I also have been fascinated by examples of people choosing hard paths in dire circumstances as the metaphor that defines successful individuals’ life narratives. In Frankl’s death camp reality, this ultimately boiled down to choosing to be good, and helping fellow prisoners, or choosing to partake in evil, which many prisoners did as brutal prisoner guards called kapos.

No one gets a free pass in this model, and all people in all groups can be one or the other, Frankl says. “In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints,” writes Frankl. “Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

I had not been able to order these two lines of thinking into a coherent set of principles, as Frankl so perfectly did. When I stumbled on him quite by accident or maybe design this summer, while reading books by Robert Greene and even management guru Stephen Covey, I had that most rewarding and delicious feeling of “aha.” It was more like, “Wow, what the hell was that!”

It felt like a thunderclap. I almost reeled from the sensation. I then began to tell every single person I know about Frankl, and I learned many of my colleagues had already read him. I felt robbed not one teacher or academic, at three respected universities I attended, had covered or even mentioned Frankl, when his ideas are foundational to our understanding of the fields of psychology, public health, business, organizational behavior, religion, and the humanities in the 21st century.

Frankl deserves vastly more attention then he is given by health, mental health, and social activist thinkers. That is a shame too, because as a speaker, Frankl brimmed with enthusiasm and could convey complex ideas in the simplest ways to reach his audience. Watch his presentation at the University of Toronto–a brilliant performance.

Frankl’s ideas matter to each of us, in everyday life

Photo courtesy of PBS, showing a pensive and thoughtful Viktor Frankl (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/frankl.html)
Photo courtesy of PBS, showing a pensive and thoughtful Viktor Frankl. Click on the photo for a link to the web site.

One my most satisfying feelings is discovering that one’s personal life experiences and ideas on issues as big as the meaning of life also resonate profoundly with millions of others—those who have read his work. Even more gratifying is discovering that the core principles to living life amid hard choices can be grounded in principles that can help everyone, even in the most dire of personal experiences.

My own travels in the developing world stand out for me. I met countless people facing vastly more painful, difficult, challenging lives than I have faced. Yet, the wonderful people I met had nothing but smiles and treated me with genuine sincerity. I had to ask myself, why is it that so many people are clearly content when their surroundings indicate they should be experiencing utter despair and even violent rage. Why is there kindness in their hearts and peace with their reality.

Photo of Coptic Youth, Egypt by Rudy Owens
These young men, all Copts, a persecuted minority, highlight for me the depth of goodness one finds in the world, even when many have no material foundation that suggests they should be happy.

I understood at all levels what I was experiencing. But Frankl’s framework ties this rich set of personal experiences to all of us, and to larger existential ideas of what we are meant to do with our time.

For Frankl, the answer is just doing what life needs us to do. As Frankl wrote nearly 70 years ago, “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”

With that point, I now must ask you, the reader, What are you doing with your life, and are you doing what you are being asked to do? You cannot escape this question, and if you avoid it, you will always have the pain and emptiness of not listening to your own calling. The choice of course is your own.

The wisdom of adversity and misfortune

“But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.” … Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

During a recent outing to one of Seattle’s many brewpubs, I swapped stories with my good friend about hospital visits. Most people I know have had them, and a rarefied few have not. In my case, I have been hospitalized at least a half-dozen times, mostly for stitches, but also worse.

I told my friend some of my greatest learning moments came with contemplation lying in a hospital bed. There is nothing like pain one feels in the ugliness of a hospital room to focus the mind and to allow one to make sense of all the things that preceded the unforgettable trigger moments.

South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal
South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal

South African born psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal has written a book on this theme called the Gift of Adversity. Thinking back on his own Apartheid-era life, surviving a near fatal stabbing, and his professional experiences, Rosenthal argues that innovation, resilience, and understanding emerge  from our own adverse experiences and by gaining wisdom from those hard times. Writ large, economists will even refer to collective behaviors among entire generations, such as young people who came into adulthood in the Depression era, and whose lifelong buying patterns and decisions to live more austerely can be quantitatively measured.

Using examples of individuals who endured suffering yet who came out stronger, Rosenthal sees opportunity in these struggles for all of us. “Well, when adversity comes, the last word that comes to mind is gift, because it just looks like an unmitigated disaster. But, how many times have you heard a friend or somebody say, ‘You know, at the time, it seemed terrible, but in retrospect, it was for the best.’ … The first step is really to accept that the adversity has happened. … We have to somehow come to terms that it really has happened. Then, we have to analyze the situation, every adversity is different, and respond accordingly.”

My own experiences mirrored these points, almost too perfectly. Both involved small misfortunes with lifelong rewards.

Lesson No. 1: When I was 14 and not fully mature, I did something that was likely one of the dumbest acts of my life. I will not say exactly what it was, but it substantially disrupted life at my often-violent and chaotic junior high school, in University City, Mo. I was soon on my way for an expulsion as the second-to-last-day of classes was ending in June 1979.

Coming back to campus I encountered four guys who I did not know. At least three were students. The other may have been a high school student. He was older, a guy with a cast. They were tough. I was not. They were experienced in the art of violence. I had few such fighting skills. They were skillful manipulators, and I fell for small talk that drew me close. It turns out one of them had been blamed for the incident. That is the story I heard second-hand, and the group was bent on physical vengeance.

I do not remember everything that happened, but I do remember feeling a floating feeling. I was cold-cocked in the face by one of the four wearing a cast. I was bleeding profusely from a cut on my eyelid and could not see out of my left eye. I was lying on the ground not sure what had happened. I felt warm blood on my hand.

I remember the four of them mocking me and telling me if I was happy now about having the heat fall on them. It was a perfect example of the violence I had witnessed many times before at this school, often with the tense black-white racial undertones, and I am sure that tension influenced this assault too. They walked away, never having been arrested, never having been questioned by anyone, ever.

Insult piled upon injury. I had to go back to school, get kicked out by a furious principal who did not express any concern about me having just been assaulted on school grounds, and then have teachers sign my expulsion papers. One thug laughed at me in the hall and yelled, “What happened to you.” I shot back, in my un-masculine voice, “What do you think happened.” He turned cold, came close, and threatened, “Yo, want another one, mother fucker.” Luckily I walked away from that one.

I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.
I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.

My mom, a new teacher that year in the same district, took me to the emergency room in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where I was put into a shared room and monitored. My eye pressure was dangerously high because vessels were ruptured from blunt trauma, and I was at high risk of blindness in my left eye. The doctors prescribed having both eyes covered for more than a week to keep them from moving, lying in a bed, and having no physical activity.

I remember the slow passage of time and mostly the sounds of the ward, the voice of my few visitors, and the stories of a young man next to me going into eye surgery, not sure what would happen.

The school principal came once, talked briefly, and somehow waived my punishment as a result of being a violent crime victim. He never told me or my mom what the school or school district had done to investigate the assault. My mom told me years later she was too afraid as a new teacher to make waves with her new employer. No police officer ever took my story. The whole thing was wiped under the rug.

Lying there, in a flimsy hospital gown, feeling like needles were piercing my eyeball, I came to the realization of how precious my sight really was, and how close I had flirted with genuine disaster.

Lesson Learned: This was the clearest teaching moment ever in my life. Never, ever, do stupid things. Such acts have unforeseen consequences, particularly things that put you in a weak position with uncaring bureaucracies and with men who use violence to settle a score. If you act badly and unwisely without thinking, the sword of blunt justice will be swift, and it will be lasting. Also, without any allies or friends, one can be quickly abandoned by any organization if you are perceived as lacking advocacy skills and are vulnerable. So, do not present yourself as weak or easily exploited. Finally, and most importantly, always know exactly who you are dealing with when you confront strangers in strange circumstances. Trust your instincts, and keep your wits about you, always. Your instincts will always know who is a friend and who is a foe. Worry about bruised feelings later, from a safe distance.

It took me a whole summer to recover, and I could not engage in full physical activities for three months. I wore an eye patch half the summer. Decades later, I still have damage to the back of my eye that my most recent visit to an optometrist confirmed. He could see the damaged areas after my pupil was dilated.

Lesson No. 2: In my last month of my journalism master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in July 1993, I was playing pickup soccer at the UNC-CH campus. It was supposed to be friendly, but of course men are fiercely competitive. A guy who I was marking intentionally head-butted me with the back of his head into my face. He broke my nose instantly, and it began to bleed profusely. I walked myself to the UNC-CH hospital, as it was close by.

This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.
This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.

I waited about three hours for a resident to attend to my situation. The plastic-surgeon-to-be had been up about 28 hours and was in a terrible mood. After shooting cocaine painkillers into my nasal cavity area, he stuck a metal rod up my nose and proceeded to move things back into place. I recall screaming like a wild animal so loudly that it clearly disrupted patients in the entire wing. The exhausted and overworked resident was furious with my uncooperativeness, as he called it. He stuck the rod back in and went back to work.

A nurse came in and saw the procedure. She simply held my hand. I stopped crying. I instantly calmed down. My level of pain subsided dramatically. The compassionate act of human touch proved more powerful than any medicine. After the resident stuffed both of my nasal passages with some sort of medical gauze, I thanked the nurse. She gave me a caring look that said, everything’s going to be OK.

That night I wrote a poem about the war in Bosnia, then raging at the time, and I put my small problem into a larger perspective of suffering felt more severely by others around the world.

Lesson Learned: Human compassion and human touch are among the most powerful healing agents in the world, often more powerful than medicine and actions of medical specialists. The mind, when it needs to, can calm down and can process a stressful situation. Set the calming effect in motion, and show mindfulness of yourself and others who may be less fortunate.

Comment: Author Rosenthal, who sees the importance of adversity, profiles the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He was the only member of his family to survive the genocide, staying in four different camps, and went on to receive acclaim for his widely read treatise called Man’s Search for Meaning, original published in German in 1946 Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl
Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s own horrific experience taught fellow psychiatrist Rosenthal critical lessons also, that one can find meaning even in the midst of terrible adversity and that no single group of people is pure good or evil. Both types of people can be found in all groups, everywhere.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,” wrote Frankl. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

In no way did anything I experience come close to the challenges Frankl and other tough and lucky individuals have endured from such crimes.

I do know that in my case, my invaluable teachers came disguised as sterile wards and rooms of hospitals, giving me opportunities to contemplate larger truths. In one case, I created my own folly but could use my intellect to evaluate my mistakes. I also benefitted from being in hospitals, where I seldom felt kindness and felt great stress and also fear. This was clearly a place to avoid at all costs. I was doubly motivated to stay healthy—mind, body, and soul.

The wisdom I gained at those small junctures far exceeded anything I received in any university setting. As Robert Greene’s opening quote aptly notes, our bad luck prepares us for misfortune and gives us the strategies to overcome the roadblocks we build for ourselves or encounter from others. Those who are blessed mostly by good luck will eventually see their luck change, and when they do, they will be overtaken by those who have adapted and learned already.

So be thankful for those learning moments. They are your teachers, and you profit immensely by employing that knowledge wisely in the future.

Robert Greene’s insights into power and mastery

Robert Greene, popular author
Popular author Robert Greene

How is it that a classics major, a guy who reportedly held 80 jobs, and a not-so-successful screenwriter became the big man of big ideas in a span of 15 years, now doing lectures at places like Google? Today, writer Robert Greene is known by everyone from corporate CEOs, to rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z, and even to retired dictators like Fidel Castro.

Many people are most familiar with Greene’s seminal 1998 work, The 48 Laws of Power. The book is a compendium of principles of success for the modern-day prince and even low-level office worker on how to succeed. Some of those frequently mentioned laws include “Court attention at all costs,” “Crush your enemy totally,” “Learn to keep people dependent on you,” and “Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”

He also wrote other popular books drawing on the same formula of turning to the past and historic examples to shine relevance on the present and also on achieving success.

Greene’s works also include The Art of Seduction (2004), The 33 Strategies of War (2007), The 50th Law (2009) that involved collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, and more recently Mastery (2012). Greene is a man clearly on a mission. I recommend anyone who is interested in organizational behavior or simply how to get along better with a rival or coworker read one of his works.

Rebooting those ‘stale’ classics and lessons of history

The 48 Laws of Power, in essence, reboots the well-read and well-studied writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, historic Chinese military strategists like Sun Tzu, and tactics of leaders such as Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. These are texts and persons that liberal arts majors by the hundreds of thousands have studied, yet few others have stitched together to have such contemporary modern relevance for everyone’s day-to-day life. As someone who has read many of these classic works and who studied history, nothing here is new to me, and thus not surprising.

Having sold well over a million copies of The 48 Laws of Power alone, Greene is today the subject of professional jealousy from those who have not achieved his notoriety and also praise from those who practice his stratagems that have appeared repeatedly in history. (This is just one of many summaries of those laws found online, and they are worth downloading and reviewing.)

Some professional groups, like the American Public Health Association, even published the laws of power, and quizzically asked public health leaders, “So, now that you’ve read the laws, how appropriate are they for you, as a health care administrator?” Having worked in the field, I can assure you many of these laws most certainly apply to public health bureaucracies and managerial aspirants in them who are more obsessed with power games and personal ambition than with promoting public health. But this is not news to anyone, in any profession.

As Greene told the LA Times in 2011, “These laws … people might say, ‘Oh they’re wicked.’ They’re practiced day in and day out by businesspeople. You’re always trying to get rid of your competition and it can be pretty bloodthirsty, and that’s just the reality.”

48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
The 48 Laws of Power

The ‘dark side’ or the ‘real side’?

Consider Greene’s dark view in the opening to The 48 Laws of Power. “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”

For Greene, The 48 Laws of Power was a personal journey that built upon his fascination with Greek and Roman history, and the lessons drawn from that era. In Greene’s case, his failures in Hollywood led him to attempt to duplicate Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River to launch a civil war against his rival Pompeii (dramatized brilliantly in the HBO miniseries Rome).

A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.
A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.

Greene notes how he arrived at his own Rubicon to reboot the tired, old classics into a modern bible for aspiring climbers and those trying to cope with amoral people and broken organizations: “My situation is much less intense, but I will follow Caesar and not only write the proposal, but take three months to do it right. I would have to borrow the money and cut my ties with the film world. As Caesar revealed to me, the more I had to lose, the harder I would work. The treatment turned into the best-selling The 48 Laws of Power and represents the turning point in my life.”

For those who are not familiar with history or its lessons, they may be missing Greene’s larger and longer long view of human history and behaviors that transcend time and culture. He told Forbes that his secret goal is to make “reading, studying the classics and philosophy something hip, so that young people were inspired to step away from the TV and the Internet and challenge their minds, rethink the world and return to our origins.”

We already knew a lot about the laws of power

When I posted a section of Greene’s writing on my Facebook page, describing people who are psychopathic and display passive aggression to the point of becoming warriors at this art, one of my colleagues responded, “OMG. If this does not describe one of my co-workers, I don’t know what does. Thank you for this.”

For me, many things Greene discusses have been well trodden by writers from William Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and anyone who has worked as a news reporter knows the realities that always lie beneath the surface veneer, particularly among those who exploit others and use power.

This is not to say students of history are cynics. Great students of history also are great leaders, notably Abraham Lincoln, who used his deep knowledge of America’s founding fathers and the actual intent of the U.S. Constitution’s authors to persuade voters that they did not intend slavery to remain a permanent and immoral institution in the country. Lincoln’s passion for history and his knowledge of power and human ambitions in fact made him one of the greatest leaders ever.

Mastery, by Robert Greene
Mastery

Mastery takes a more optimistic tone

I was deeply impressed with Greene’s delightful 2012 book, Mastery. The book uses profiles of contemporary masters and historic “geniuses,” such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, John Coltrane, Leonardo di Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others. (Many examples, but not all, are white men.) Why did they break down barriers, have astounding creativity, and achieve brilliance that crossed boundaries of thought.

Greene’s answer lies in the deep, thoughtful, apprenticeship type work one does before one becomes a master. He shows that through this applied study, the most innovative work happens in sports, science, research, art, military endeavors, and more. For Greene, through an applied apprenticeship that normally lasts five to 10 years, learning real skills and innovative thinking occur at the neural level, where great insight comes from.

“The goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery,” he writes. These involve three modes:

  • Step One: Deep Observation—the passive mode
  • Step Two: Skills Acquisition—the practice mode
  • Step Three: Experimentation—the active mode

During the acquisition mode, an apprentice will log at least 10,000 hours of practice, before charting his or her own course as a master. “This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it,” Greene writes. “It means qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it.”

For Greene, mastery is more than becoming simply proficient. This is about deep creativity and achieving one’s life purpose, which he suggests is a challenge that will confront most of us. “No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviated because of the lure of money, or more immediate prospects of prosperity. … Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. … There is no compromise there, no way of escaping the dynamic. You will recognize how far you have deviated by the depth of your pain and frustration.”

The answer, according to Greene, lies in pursuing the path used by masters time and again, which he acknowledges is full of challenges and pleasures. “Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it,” writes Greene. “It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their life’s task.”

Franklin’s lesson in power and mastery

According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.
According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.

One the masters cited by Greene is Benjamin Franklin, because he was an innovative inventor, writer, and businessman who possessed great social intelligence. Greene shows that this latter skill is absolutely key to becoming successful and a master. Franklin is also one of my many role models. He excelled at nearly everything he did and had amazing people skills that always left a positive impression, like influential people I have known in my life.

Clearly, Franklin was one who learned about power well, in the most classic sense. Greene notes that as a young man, Franklin was terribly duped by Pennsylvania’s governor when he went to England and found himself practically penniless, without promised letters of introduction.

A copy of the daily schedule of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin thought deeply and then grew. He resolved never to make an error of character judgment again and think about a man’s intentions carefully before making a response. And he always resolved to work at building his networks and turning enemies into allies, if possible. It worked time and again as he kept having success after success, but after great work and careful deep thought. Greene also shows that Franklin, as a master, also always stayed curious, and some say youthful until his 80s. The rest is, as they say, history.

Franklin perhaps is a Machiavellian case study in early American power, by becoming a revolutionary, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and “founding father.” But by achieving excellence through the path of apprentice to master, he became much more.

On my wall, I have hanging a clip from Franklin’s daily planning calendar. On one side, he wrote the question for the morning: “What good shall I do this day?” For the evening hours, his calendar ended with the evening question, “What good have I done today.”

 

 

A few thoughts on management, leadership, and the greatest of ’em all, Abe Lincoln

About two years ago, I was tasked with doing a summary of the essential differences between management and leadership. This is one of the great topics in all of management and organizational behavior literature. Walls of books line bookshelves by experts from every field, from sports to defense to business.

This difference impacts all of us, because the effects of good or bad leadership filter down to all of us, either as government policy or work environments, or in extreme cases, life and death outcomes as seen in conflicts raging in Syria, South Sudan, and other troubled areas.

As someone working in public health, I am acutely aware how this woefully underfunded field needs inspirational leaders to tackle the challenges posed by public health threats, but also to inspire and steer public thinking and win support for greater public health funding.

Without strong leaders, from small agencies to leading scientists to figureheads like the U.S. Surgeon General (see my post that touches on how Dr. C. Everett Koop set the standard), the profession may continue to be relegated to third-tier funding status in federal budget priorities and not gain greater acceptance by a wider majority of Americans. (Note to my international readers, I am writing this post with an American context.)

With management and leadership issues very much on mind this past week because of some interesting developments I have observed, I have decided to publish a short summary document I did on this topic two years ago focussing on Abraham Lincoln as an example. He continues to inspire me, even when I hit roadblocks and get discouraged. And isn’t that what good leaders do, inspire?

“Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about American and also considered the greatest citizen this country has ever produced. He exemplified many of the traits that today's theorists consider to be those of a highly inspirational and effective leader.
Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about American and also considered the greatest citizen this country has ever produced. He exemplified many of the traits that today’s theorists consider to be those of a highly inspirational and effective leader.

What Is Management and Who Are Managers:

Management has been defined as “the art of using all available resources to accomplish a given set of tasks in a timely and economical manner.” Management provides the basis for the system of control needed to maintain and operate an organization. It is also about getting things done through others and delegating work. Managers motivate employees to accomplish tasks with a variety of tools (intrinsic or extrinsic awards).

Typical Management Activities:

Planning, decision-making, organizing, staffing, directing/actuating (the process of leading through teaching), directing, and controlling (determining what the organization does in relation to its mission).

Management Theories:

– “Classic” management theory, dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, suggests managers have to rely less on technical skills and more on conceptual skills the more senior rank they hold. However, in the down economy as our class’s manager interviews found, managers at higher levels in lean organizations still have a lot of technical skills because they are doing a lot of frontline/skills-related activities.

– Classic models: Henry Mintzberg’s “10 managerial roles” (informational, interpersonal, and decision), similar to Robert Katz’s “skills of an effective administrator”  (technical, human, conceptual).

Scott Adams extremely insightful comic strip Dilbert captures an essence of management that likely resonates with millions of workers who find themselves led by those who fall short, very short of is well-document as being a good leader. Go to Adams' web site for more of his great work: http://www.dilbert.com.
Scott Adams’ extremely insightful comic strip Dilbert captures an essence of management that likely resonates with millions of workers who find themselves led by those who fall short, actually very short, of what is well-documented as being a good leader. Go to Adams’ web site for more of his great work: http://www.dilbert.com.

Management vs. Leadership:

Managers marshal resources to achieve the vision of others, and if they are good, help each person cultivate their talents and grow. Leaders are “visionaries, strategic thinkers, activators.” A talented few may excel at both.

Managers: rely on analysis and rationality, stress conformity, more like scientists, project power over people, seek obedience, emulate other successful managers/leaders.

Leaders: envision, rely on intuition, have self-confidence and take risks, project power with people, are creative and spontaneous, emphasize team building, explore new possibilities, inspire people to follow their vision.

Key Characteristic of Great Leaders: Emotional Intelligence (the principal theorist of this theory is Daniel Goleman):

  • Self-Awareness: Ability to recognize one’s emotions and their effects.
  • Self-Regulation: Ability to think before acting and suppress disruptive moods.
  • Motivation: A passion for the work beyond salary or status. Optimism, commitment, drive to do better.
  • Empathy: Ability to understand people’s emotions and treat them accordingly.
  • Social Skill: Good at building relationships and networks, finding common ground.

Leadership: Innate Ability Helpful, Practice Is Essential

Management experts debate if leadership is innate or learned; research suggests the latter. But innate traits such as drive, desire to lead, integrity, intelligence, and skill make it more likely that an individual will become a leader but are not the only factors in play. Research has shown that individuals can develop their leadership skills if they are given the right opportunities and mentored.
– Leadership as Innate: Intelligence and technical skill are key, and both are at least partially determined by genetics. Emotional intelligence—main predictor—tends to run in families and be greatly influenced by personality and childhood experience.
– Leadership as Learned: Businesses believe leaders can be created and invest a lot of time and money to identify and train individuals to assume leadership positions.
– Transactional Leaders, focus on meeting organizational goals. Make adjustments as needed to complete tasks for group.
– Transformational Leaders use personality/relations with followers to inspire the team to go above and beyond expectations. They are defined by charisma, vision, integrity, symbolism.

Abraham Lincoln, the Embodiment of Strong Leadership:

  • Lincoln Model, Emotional Intelligence: By the time he had become President, Lincoln had mastered his emotions and exercised great control by not sending “hot letters.” When the time came for action, he acted decisively, but only after deep analysis of the full situation. His greatest asset was his astounding empathy to understand his rivals, allies, and especially his opponents, including the slaveholding South. He was also a beloved storyteller and well-liked and admired by his peers. Lincoln also learned from missteps and made amends with opponents when victorious, and he did not carry personal grudges. He was driven to have a life that fulfilled a higher purpose and to preserve the Union—a nation he believed that had great future promise.
  • Lincoln Model, Learned Leadership: With just one year of schooling, Lincoln embodied personal drive and self-learning, as well as integrity. Lincoln spent years practicing his craft, in Whig party politics and then in the Illinois Legislature. He lost to his then-more renown rival Stephen Douglas in a U.S. Senate bid in 1856. He then won a brokered convention of the Republican Party in 1860, held in Chicago, after becoming the foremost speaker on the greatest issue of his day, the expansion of slavery. He credited the assistance of many benefactors and friends for believing in him and helping him rise to political prominence.
  • Lincoln Model, Not One Style of Leadership: Lincoln mixed authoritarianism (suspending the writ of habeas corpus, etc.) as a wartime president, but had a democratic style with his cabinet (his “Team of Rivals,” the most capable politicians of his day he personally recruited). He was transformational; his peers recognized his greatness, inspiring them to work harder.

The enduring influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher

Photography is a highly personal artistic and communication medium. I have found that those who are successful in this arena achieve that status because their work is clearly recognizable. Success is never by accident, and the photographers I greatly admire remain consistently clear and compelling over time, and usually with great impact on others in the field.

Sebastião Salgado comes to mind for me in the field of visual storytelling with a clear vision. His impact can be seen widely in imitators and co-travellers. The same can be said with the husband-wife duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilda and Bernd Becher.
Lime kilns, by Hilla and Bernd Becher.

The German couple photographed industrial architecture in Europe and North America for nearly 40 productive years, until Bernd’s death in 2007. Their easily recognizable subjects include water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, timbered homes, and other industrial features.

The pair published books with their images, grouped together in what they called “typologies,” or sets of images of the same objects from different geographic locations, usually in sets of say nine or 21 images. Each image would be photographed identically, with direct frontal composition, no lens distortions, and with a neutral density skyline that did not distract the viewer from the subject.

These ordered collections had almost no captions and simply conveyed the form of the objects, letting the similarities of the objects communicate the meaning without any of the often absurd and blabbering arts-speak that is usually associated with art and photography commentary. (I imagine the Bechers would find such nonsensical writings absurd.)

Their books of photographs, such as Industrial Landscapes and Typologies of Industrial Buildings, compile their work into compelling sets of images. The influence of their aesthetic can be seen in numerous imitators and students, including this series I found recently on abandoned homes in Detroit.

Toward the end of his career, Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, leading to a crop of photographers and a style of picture-taking that is is known as the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” Bernd’s well-known and accomplished students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky, one of the most celebrated photographers of the world who has sold the world’s most expensive photographic print.

Bernd and Hilda Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

I may have stumbled over the Bechers’ work without knowing it. However, I do recall feeling trapped in a hypnotic trance when I discovered a collection of their blast furnace images, or typology, in the new wing at the St. Louis Art Museum in December 2013.

I felt a deep kinship with their interest in industrical landscapes, perhaps because I grew up in St. Louis and was surrounded by similar forms in a city that was dying as an industrial center during my years there. I also felt a connection because I sensed something profoundly post-World War II about their work.

Their work is distinctly German to me, and their images are imbued with the personal experiences of two people who were in their adolescence during the Nazis’ brutal reign in Germany, when the world turned upside down, where the Holocaust and slave labor on a mass scale were engineered, and where killing and death were woven into the DNA of every German as a result of the country’s destruction that followed the country’s efforts to conquer Europe and beyond. (Bernd was born in 1931 and Hilla in 1934.)

Like it or not, they were a product of that experience, and I can feel it having also traveled widely in Germany on several trips and having studied this period of history intensely.

What is strikingly odd to me is I do not believe I was influenced by either of them. Yet the way I chose to explore my photographic project documenting concentration and death camps in five European countries closely mirrored the style of the Bechers. Even the way I chose to layout my photographs of crematoria, where murdered prisoners bodies were burned, bears an eerily familiar resemblance to the Bechers’ amazing work.

I don’t know what more to make of this except to say that I feel satisfied that my presentation style and methods are not singular. I also feel that the effect of combining similar images of strikingly mundane but complex objects can have greater weight in the format of a typology.

With that heavy photographic pontification complete, I present a screen snapshot of my crematoria series on my web site, followed by two screen snapshots of the Bechers’ typologies that I found online and also captured as a screen snapshot.

Rudy Owens' series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.
Rudy Owens’ series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.
Screen snapshot of the Bechers' many typologies and series, taken from Google's "image" tool.
Screen snapshot of the Bechers’ many typologies and series, taken from Google’s “image” tool.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide

A long-abandonned Armenian church can be seen in the Karkoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.
A long-abandoned Armenian church can be seen in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.

In September and October 2001, I traveled throughout Turkey for more than three weeks. It was one of my greatest trips ever. I loved the country and really enjoyed my experiences getting to know the Turkish people. I recommend the country to anyone. During that trip, I worked on a photo-documentary project, visiting historic locations of the Armenians. I also visited many other places too, from ancient monasteries, to Greek and Roman ruins, to the wonders of the Ottoman Empire, to Kurdish regions that were experiencing disturbances that have not fully settled to this day.

I did a lot of research before this trip, and received a lot of assistance from some Armenian colleagues I befriended as a result of my interest in photographing remnants of the Anatolian Armenians, who experienced the first clearly documented case of genocide of the 20th century. I do not wish to get into a larger discussion of that topic. I am republishing a story, with photographs, that I published first in 2002. It recounts my travels to historic locations linked to the genocide and Armenian history in present-day Turkey.

I finally got around to publishing this story again, after finding some materials I had forgotten about–the story told through numbers. Since I work in public health these days, I find myself steeped in data and perhaps a bit beholden to it. So with that frame of view, I present a “by the numbers” perspective on my travels in Turkey, this significant crime against humanity, and a point of view that I try to keep in focus when I get lost in the small stuff and forgot the important stuff.

My story, An Armenian Journey, is in PDF format, and because of its large file size at 25 mb, it may take a  while to download. Please be patient, as it well worth your time. A very useful map of the tragic events is published by the Armenian National Institute. A fine collection of historic prints and illustrations of now vanished Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey can be found on the Houshamadyan web site. That site shows pictures of many of the places I visited, and you can compare historic pictures with the pictures I show in my story.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1922, by the numbers:

1  Number of Armenian Villages remaining in Turkey

1.5  Approximate number of persons, in millions, estimated to have been murdered during the genocide against Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.

.6  Approximate number of Armenians, in millions, that the Turkish government today claims died during World War I during what the government called a military uprising.

35  Number of Armenian churches still active in Istanbul, according to a custodian at the Kilisesi Vakfik in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

100,000  Approximate number of ethnic Armenians residing in Istanbul today, according to members of the Holy Mother-of-God Armenian Patriarchal Church, in the Kumkapi neighborhood of Istanbul.

30 Approximate distance, in meters, from the Kumkapi police station to the Armenian Patriarchate (main church for Armenian Christians in Turkey).

5  Number of recognizable historic Armenian religious structures in Erzerum that are either labeled Selcuk or unknown origin.

2,549  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Ottoman Empire (churches, monasteries, parish structures), according to a survey by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1914, on the eve of the genocide (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

464  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Republic of Turkey that had disappeared from the total of only 913 structures with known whereabouts in 1974, according to a survey done of the buildings that year (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

252  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in ruins, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

197  Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in sound shape, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenians” at Ani, the historic cultural capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in eastern Anatolia on the border of modern-day Armenia and inside Turkey.

1/2  Number of surviving Armenian structures in present-day Kozan, called Sis by the Armenians, and the capital of their kingdom in Cilicia in the 13th and 14th centuries and formerly seat of the Armenia Catholicasate.

0  Number of references to Armenia on signs next to these structures.

350  Approximate number of mosques (including the great Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques), bridges, and buildings credited to the Armenian architect Sinan.

1  Number of Armenian religious buildings remaining in Harput, the center of the graphic, first-hand account of the genocide by American diplomat Leslie Davis called The Slaughterhouse Province.

4  Number of monument structures at Liberty Hill in Istanbul to honor Talaat Pasha and the Young Turks, the principal architects of the first genocide of the 20th century.

0  Number of signs outside the now locked and gated memorial indicating the contents inside the weed-covered area originally built in 1943 to honor the former Turkish leader, who was gunned down in Berlin in 1921 by an exiled Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian (in 2001).

2  Number of Armenian spires visible at Isak Pasa Palace, near Mt. Ararat, a complex that contemporary sources say was built by a Kurdish chief in 1685. [Structure is called a Turbet in Let’s Go.]

2  Number of military points passed prior to entering the Ani complex.

3  Number of government and police offices required to complete an Ani application process (taking a quick one hour of time, in 2001).

25  Approximate cost, in U.S. dollars (as of October 2001), to visit the historic Ani ruins.

Number of road crossings open to commerce and road travelers between Turkey and present-day Armenia (in 2001).

6  Number of Armenian churches I visited in Istanbul that are now permanently closed.

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenian” at Akdamar Church, an Armenian church outside Van on an island in Lake Van.

53  Number of days more than 4,000 Armenian villagers in the Hatay Province south of Antakya, on Musa Dagh (“Mountain of Moses”), resisted Ottoman forces in 1915 before they were rescued by Allied warships.

18  Number of languages that Franz Werfel’s best-selling account of the famous siege and rescue–Forty Days of Musa Dagh–has been translated into since its first publication in 1933.

24  The day every April that Armenians the world over mark as their genocide anniversary day, commemorating the date in 1915 that 600 leading Armenians and another 5,000 Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, and almost all killed.

Oregon’s smallpox legacy in a state celebrated for vaccination deniers

Smallpox remains the only human disease that has been successfully eradicated. Its scourge has been global, impacting nearly every great civilization from the time of the Pharaohs onward.

Smallpox helped the Spanish invaders conquer the Aztecs in the 1500s; nearly 3 million persons were killed.

In Europe, it reportedly claimed 60 million lives in the 1700s. In the 1500s, up to 3 million Aztecs died after being infected by the conquering Spanish, bringing about the collapse of their culture and civilization more effectively than the violent conquistadores could have ever dreamed. The last reported case occurred in the 1970s. Since that time, the virus has existed only in two highly guarded labs.

Smallpox is also tragically rooted in the meeting of European and Native American cultures, and its horrific impact on the continent’s first peoples underlies the nation’s historic narrative as much as political and economic developments from colonial expansion to industrialization to slavery.

The pilgrims, like the Spanish, brought the dreaded scourge, which immediately took a toll on Native tribes on the Eastern seaboard. The first outbreak claimed 20 of the white settlers’ lives. Founding Father Ben Franklin lost a son to smallpox in 1736. But smallpox more than any army, particularly in the Pacific Northwest in the Oregon territory, made it possible for the young American nation to conquer Native areas, many totally wiped clean of their Native inhabitants. I will talk more about the impacts in Oregon shortly, but first some background on the killer virus.

Smallpox’s enormous role in North American and Native American history

There are two smallpox variants, Variola major, the more severe form, and the less severe Variola minor. Its symptoms include fever and lethargy about two weeks after exposure, followed by a sore throat and vomiting. For those afflicted, a rash would then appear on the face and body, and sores in the mouth, throat, and nose. Infectious pustules would emerge and expand. By the third week, scabs formed and separated from the skin. The virus is spread by respiratory droplets, and also by contaminated bedding and clothes. This was how many historians suspect the disease may have been transmitted to Native Americans in North America.

French Jesuits in Canada in 1625, according to an account by Ian and Jennifer Glynn in The Life and Death of Smallpox, received great hostility from Natives because of the link made between the disease and contact with Europeans. The missionaries reported the local people “observed with some sort of reason that since our arrival in these lands those who had been the nearest to us had happened to be the most ruined by [smallpox], and that whole village of those who had receive us now appeared utterly exterminated.”

The first recorded use of smallpox as a weapon was during the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, when Native tribes during Pontiac’s uprising during the French and Indian war were reportedly given infected blankets by a British general, possibly with the goal of infection, even though scientific knowledge at the time did not fully understand germ theory or microbial infections. However, there was an understanding of how the disease might be spread based on experiences.  Reports also exist of the British attempting to infect colonial areas during the Revolutionary War–all early cases of germ warfare.

Smallpox was reportedly used against the 10,000-man contingent of the Continental Army that invaded British-held Quebec. Of that force, half were stricken by smallpox, and it was theorized the British commander may have intentionally spread it by sending infected persons to Continental Army camps. That army’s commander died, and the force retreated in 1776, keeping the Canadian territories intact and thus giving birth to Canada. Noted John Adams, “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt the heart of stone. The smallpox is 10 times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together.”

Abraham Lincoln supposedly contracted it during the height of the Civil Ware in 1863—the outcome of which could have turned the course of U.S. and global history, had he died. (I for one am glad he survived this.)

The first vaccine, developed in 1770, was derived from cowpox by Edward Jenner. He had observed how a milk maid  was inoculated from the impacts of the more deadline Variola major and minor by a previous exposure to cowpox. It was not until 1947 when a frozen vaccine was introduced globally. After a costly global campaign, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has published an extremely useful illustration and timeline of the history of smallpox in the United states and globally.

A man who caught smallpox in Milwaukee is shown in this 1925 photo.
It was less than 100 years ago smallpox wreaked havoc. A photo provided by Dr. Bennet Lorbar shows a man with pox marks on his body, among the victims of the 1925 Milwaukee outbreak that claimed 87 lives.

Today, many people in the United States, particularly those born after routine smallpox vaccinations were ended in 1972, have no memory of how awful such a disease can be. (The CDC has a plan to vaccinate the entire country should the virus ever break free from its labs.)

This may be a contributing factor to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. It should noted opposition to smallpox vaccination in the United States dates to the 1920s, and opposition even as far back as the first vaccine of Jenners.

Ex-Playmate McCarthy and the vaccination deniers

The most famous case of modern day vaccination denialism is linked to controversies surrounding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and its alleged link to autism and autism spectrum disorder. This bogus claim was completely based on a widely discredited study published by the British medical journal the Lancet in 2004, and then formally retracted in 2010. It was further debunked by extensive population based studies.

Facts, of course, have still not stopped former 1994 Playmate of the year Jenny McCarthy, and the “Green our Vaccines” campaign, from claiming toxins in vaccines cause autism.

Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and have been a Playmate of the Year in 1994?
Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and was not the Playmate of the Year in 1994?

Her campaign of disinformation just got a boost when she was given a national stage by Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC News, which hired the vaccination extremist to its show called The View in mid-July 2013. She begins her post in September.

As expected a chorus of worried public health advocates and policy wonks decried ABC’s crass capitalistic gesture. This made no impact whatsoever on the parent corporation, Disney—all of which might lead a rational person to ask when the Disney-owned ABC News might hire a blond, big-boobed Holocaust denier to co-host a lively, unscripted talk show, so long as she boosted ratings.

Smallpox wiped out Native Americans in state that now has the highest rates of vaccination exemptions

It seems particularly and painfully ironic that the state with the highest rate of parents opting out of childhood vaccinations is Oregon. This is a major public health concern, because when there are fewer people receiving vaccinations, herd immunity is reduced, making it easier for a disease to spread.

Oregon currently has the highest rate of unvaccinated children in the nation, well above the national average of 1.2%.

As of 2013, Oregon schools had the highest rate of non-medical–meaning religious–immunization exemptions for kindergarten age children. An all time high of 6.4% were exempt. That same year the state also recorded the highest rates for pertussis (whooping cough) cases in the United States, for the past 50 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the newsletter called the Lund Report: “In 2013, rates also showed that 17 counties have now surpassed the common 6 percent threshold whereby herd immunity may be compromised for some vaccine-preventable diseases such as pertussis and measles. In 2012, 13 counties were above 6 percent.”

Thanks to a new law signed in July 2013 by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), himself a doctor, it will now be harder for Oregon parents to get exemptions from mandatory immunizations for children enrolling in schools.

Now, flash back more than two centuries, when the scourge of smallpox was first recorded in the Northwest due to trade with Europeans. A smallpox epidemic, starting in the upper Missouri River country, swept through current day Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in 1781–82 with horrific effects. Another scourge of “fever and ague,” likely malaria, ravaged Oregon in 1830–31. Other diseases as tuberculosis, measles, and venereal infections also took a huge toll. Epidemics in fact took an estimated nine of 10 lives of the lower Columbia Indian population between 1830 and 1834.

A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provide historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.
A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provides historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.

In 1834, Dr. John Townsend, in the area that would become the Oregon Territory, wrote of a mass extermination of Native residents, similar in scope to what one today only knows through zombie or science fiction films of recent years like World War Z and I am Legend.

Townsend wrote: “The Indians of the Columbia were once a numerous and powerful people; the shore of the river, for scores of miles, was lined with their villages; the council fire was frequently lighted, the pipe passed round, and the destinies of the nation deliberated upon . . . Now alas! where is he? –gone; —gathered to his fathers and to his happy hunting grounds; his place knows him no more. The spot where once stood the thickly peopled village, the smoke curling and wreathing above the closely packed lodges, the lively children playing in the front, and their indolent parents lounging on their mats, is now only indicated by a heap of undistinguishable ruins. The depopulation here has been truly fearful. A gentleman told me, that only four years ago, as he wandered near what had formerly been a thickly peopled village, he counted no less than sixteen dead, men and women, lying unburied and festering in the sun in front of their habitations. Within the houses all were sick; not one had escaped the contagion; upwards of a hundred individuals, men, women, and children, were writhing in agony on the floors of the houses, with no one to render them any assistance. Some were in the dying struggle, and clenching with the convulsive grasp of death their disease-worn companions, shrieked and howled in the last sharp agony.”

An image the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.
An image shows the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.

While stationed in Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River in 1852 and 1853, future Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant recorded similar devastation: “The Indians, along the lower Columbia as far as the Cascades and on the lower Willamette, died off very fast during the year I spent in that section; for besides acquiring the vices of the white people they had acquired also their diseases. The measles and the small-pox were both amazingly fatal. … During my year on the Columbia River, the smallpox exterminated one small remnant of a band of Indians entirely, and reduced others materially. I do not think there was a case of recovery among them, until the doctor with the Hudson Bay Company took the matter in hand and established a hospital. Nearly every case he treated recovered. I never, myself, saw the treatment described in the preceding paragraph, but have heard it described by persons who have witnessed it. The decimation among the Indians I knew of personally, and the hospital, established for their benefit, was a Hudson’s Bay building not a stone’s throw from my own quarters.”

(For those interested in this topic, they may wish to buy, download, or borrow a study of smallpox’s impact on Native North Americans called Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. One reviewer wrote that smallpox “claimed more lives from the Northern Plains tribes in one year than all the military expeditions ever sent against American Indians.”)

Where is the statue or monument pointing out this critical event in Oregon’s history?

Yet, I could find no record of any statue or memorial in Oregon today that notes this historic tragedy, which depopulated a region and left it wide open for white settlers to inhabit in the mid-1800s. Perhaps if such physical reminders were present, and educational programs to accompany them, there might be a more lively debate in Oregon. But as of now, it is state celebrated for its vaccination deniers and for denying the benefits of community water fluoridation for residents of its major urban center, Portland, for a fourth time since the 1950s.

Maybe a statue honoring ghost villages, dead tribes, and forgotten cultures on the banks of scenic Multnomah River in downtown Portland, could kick off with a special celebrity ceremony. The organizers could host a live broadcast of The View with Jenny McCarthy, in a revealing dress, describing why the state’s residents should keep their children from getting vaccinated from diseases such as pertussis.

I would be sure this event included representatives of the remaining tribal groups who managed to survive the wholesale disease-driven extermination of their brethren not many decades ago, many due to illnesses now controlled through childhood immunizations. Now that would be an attention-grabbing event that might just propel the discussion in a new direction.

Musings on slavery, abolitionist John Brown, and Hollywood’s clumsy embrace of human bondage

News stories continue to highlight the growth of human trafficking in the United StatesEurope, and especially Asia. One estimate puts the number of persons in captivity, either for forced bondage or sex trafficking and prostitution, at 12 million to 27 million. An increasing number of victims are young girls 18 and younger, who become infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDs.

Slavery seems to bring out the worst of humanity, and perhaps is a manifestation of our inglorious inhumanity. Sadly it is, well, about as American as the U.S. Constitution that not only enshrined it, but gave Southern states extra voting power–the notorious 3/5ths clause–for its slaves in the census allotment of Congressional seats.

I still remember when I visited the Philippines in 2003. Male and female pimps repeatedly accosted me within seconds of exiting taxis in front of my hotels in Cebu City and Manila, where I was working on a photo-documentary project. I was sure their workers were sex slaves. When I told them to go away, they mocked me and even offered me young children. It was sobering to realize that I represented a market, a lucrative market, that eagerly comes to countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos to exploit women, even young boys and girls. Though aware of the problem, and having seen evidence of its freewheeling nature in Asia, the unrelenting media coverage of sex slavery has become overwhelming.

Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation's capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.
Time Magazine reported on slavery in Embassy Row in the nation’s capital three years ago, but it can happen anywhere in the United States.

In April 2013, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström lamented: “It is difficult to imagine that in our free and democratic EU countries tens of thousands of human beings can be deprived of their liberty and exploited, traded as commodities for profit.” The United Nations estimates human trafficking nets $32 billion annually—a major transnational business. The United States fares no better. There are slaves being trafficked and sold in my home city of Seattle right now. A local KIRO News story recently reported: “Child sex trafficking – as easy in Seattle as ordering a pizza.”

Visiting Osawatomie, and its place in U.S. history

So slavery was on my mind when I drove across the country in late May from St. Louis to Seattle. I wanted to take a road less traveled and see some out of the way places, including in Kansas. Most of my friends practically laughed at me when I described sight-seeing there. So, I pulled out my atlas and found Osawatomie on the map, about an hour southwest of Kansas City, along state Highway 169

Osawatomie is home to one of the most important battles of the violent pre-Civil War era known as Bleeding Kansas, which claimed 56 lives.

Specifically, it is where America’s most famous abolitionist and violent revolutionary, John Brown (1800-1859), fought pro-slavery forces to prevent the then Kansas Territory from becoming a slave state.  All told 30-45 free state defenders, known as Jayhawkers (the University of Kansas’ namesake) fought nearly 250 proslavery militia along the banks of the Marais de Cygnes River on Aug. 30, 1856. Brown’s son Frederick and others died. Many say the war actually began in this small Kansas town that pro-slavers burnt to the ground during the attack.

Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Ossawatomie, Kan.
Entrance to John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.

In May of that year,  Missouri ruffians, numbering 800, had sacked Lawrence, Kan., and burned a hotel, killing one abolitionist. Their strategic goal was to keep an entire race of persons in human bondage and treated as nothing more than property, and expand the inhumane practice and trade into territories recently “ethnically cleansed” of its Indian population by the U.S. Army, based at Ft. Leavenworth.

On May 24 and 25, 1856, at the so-called Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown responded in kind, by murdering five pro-slavery settlers with a sword. The mass murder by Brown and his sons was inspired by Brown’s deep Christian faith that he had been called to undertake a divine mission to end slavery and contest its brutality and those of its violent supporters with force.

The repeated and well-publicized examples of slavery’s inhumanity in the United States enraged Brown to the point where he dedicated his life to crushing it and freeing the slaves. (Unlike most of his day, Brown also believed in the equality of races, including Indians, and of the sexes.)

Just two years earlier in 1854, a divided Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, ending the fragile 24-year-old Missouri Compromise allowing a balance of pro-slave and free states to join the Union. With the 1854 act, settlers themselves would determine if that “peculiar institution” of slavery, which held in bondage an estimated 4 million persons, or 13% of all residents in the young country, would be allowed. Pro-slavery voters won, but the constitution was disavowed, the bogus legislature tossed out, and Kansas entered a free state in 1861.

One historic political outcome from the four years of fighting in the territory was the rise of a young Illinois politician of the nascent Republican Party, who noted in his political speeches, “Look at the magnitude of this subject! … about one-sixth of the whole population of the United States are slaves!” Abraham Lincoln emerged from the turbulence of the era as the standard bearer of his party in the divisive 1860 election that set in motion the war to address what Lincoln accurately noted was the “the all absorbing topic of the day.”

As for Brown after Osawatomie, he travelled in and out of Kansas the next two years of violence before returning East to plan his failed Oct. 16, 1859, raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va.  The raid, with 21 men to trigger a Southern slave uprising, failed miserably.

A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.
A statue of the abolitionist and revolutionary John Brown stands guard at a park with his namesake in Osawatomie, Kan.

Brown was captured, tried in Charlestown, Va., and sentenced to hang to death on Dec. 2, 1859. During his trial he told the court, “Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.”

Southern politicians were terrified by Brown’s decisive and violent insurrection against the U.S. government and their “cherished traditions.” Their paranoia of either a slave uprising or further such “meddling”  precipitated their rebellion against the union.

All of that history seemed overblown and forgotten in modern-day Osawatomie (pop. 4,447). The memorial to Brown and the battle is the John Brown Museum State Historical site. It includes a cabin of a local minister and his wife used as an Underground Railroad station. The cabin survived the battle. The park features a bronze statue of Brown and historic battle markers. It looked a little shabby and unappreciated, like any small-town park without money for upkeep, except it has happened to have two presidential visitors who delivered policy speeches, by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910 and Barack Obama in 2011.

Hollywood, Slavery, and the Battle for Kansas

For many of us, however, our perception of slavery is shaped by popular culture. One of two most recent Hollywood treatments of the subject was the scholarly costume epic Lincoln, by Stephen Spielberg. The film did not hide the brutality of slavery; in fact, the film opens with a vicious hand-to-hand battle pitting likely former slave Union soldiers locked in deadly embrace with their white Confederate adversaries. The film is basically a procedural drama how Lincoln’s administration passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to end slavery “forever” in United States, while the nation’s most violent war rages outside of Washington.

The more controversial rendering of slavery is the 2012 Quentin Tarantino blood and gore pre-Civil War spectacle, Django Unchained.  This shoot-‘em up racks up a huge body count in a gratuitously violent revenge fantasy that follows the actions of a former slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx. He kills perhaps nearly two dozen Southerners, blows up plantation mansions, and frees his true love. Unlike Lincoln, this film was heatedly debated. One review noted, “No single Hollywood film in the last decade has sparked the kind of controversy and wide-ranging response as Quentin Tarantino’s latest.”

The film triggered unrest not because of its brutal violence (nothing new for Hollywood splatter fests), but because of its rival view of history. “The most important thing about Django Unchained is that it’s a reaction against, or corrective of, movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. At every turn, it subverts or inverts the racist tropes that have defined Hollywood’s–and our culture’s–treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction,” according to Jamelle Bouie.

I have black friends who had a distinctly more positive personal reaction to the violent tale than did my white counterparts. While the film’s violence seems designed only thrill audiences, the violence of slavery and of efforts to expand it by pro-slavery bushwhackers in Kansas before and during the Civil War was every bit if not more cruel, if historical records are accurate. Reality actually trumps anything Tarantino could dream up.

The magazine Harper's printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.
The magazine Harper’s printed an illustration of the 1863 raid by Southern bushwhackers of Lawrence, Kan, which killed 180 people.

According to one account, a bushwhackers’ raid during the Civil War on Lawrence, Kan., is considered one of the worst cases of mass murder by the pro-Slavery forces.

On Aug. 21, 1863, 450 pro-Confederates Led by Bill Quantrill staged an early-warning raid and mostly showed no mercy, slaughtering about 180 men and boys as young as 14. Most of the victims were unarmed and still in their beds when the killing began. Another famous bushwhacker in the region, a psychopath named “Bloody” Bill Anderson, reportedly scalped victims before he was tracked and killed, and then beheaded as an example.

The official Hollywood rendering of “bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s efforts to end slavery remains Michael Curtiz’s unsavory pro-slavery 1940 Western called the Sante Fe Trail (you can see the whole film here). The movie stars Errol Flynn as future Confederate General Jeb Stuart, then-actor Ronald Reagan as future Indian-killing General George Custer, and Olivia de Havilland as their mutual romantic interest. The film  renders a staggering historic whitewash of not only slavery and pre-Civil War America, but of John Brown’s actions in Kansas to contest the bushwhackers during the mid- to late 1850s.

Brown is portrayed by Raymond Massey as a bug-eyed, villainous psychopath bent on murder and revolution to end slavery, while Southern gentlemen like Flynn’s Stuart are true Americans who claim the South can work out slavery on their own terms.  There is no portrayal of slavery’s base cruelty, only abolitionist violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry.

Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859--an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.
Raymond Massey portraying John Brown on his hanging day on Dec. 2, 1859–an event that sped the nation faster to Civil War.

In an even more bizarre twist, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis is rendered as moral voice of wisdom, telling the graduating cadets: “”You men have but one duty alone, America.” This was the same Davis who owned slaves and dedicated himself to ensuring slavery’s survival as head of the pro-slave states doing everything they could to break away from that country.

The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fel Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.
The pro-slavery 1940 film Sante Fe Trail featured escaped slaves as subservient, pro-slavery fools who desired to return to plantation life rather than chase freedom with John Brown.

The only “black folk” seen in this disingenuous Dixie-cratic rendering of reality are powerless, witless slaves who cannot think for themselves. After a firefight that sent Brown fleeing, a husband and wife slave couple from Texas caught up in Brown’s violence reveal themselves to Stuart as misguided lovers of the white slaveholding class: “Well, old John Brown said he gonna give us freedom but, shuckin’, if this here Kansas is freedom then I ain’t got no use for it, no sir,” drawled the wife. Her husband added, “Me neither. I just want to get back home to Texas and set till kingdom come.” I suppose that means he’d get a good whipping if he fessed up for trying to win his freedom.

As one film commentator noted: “In the years before 1960 most portrayals of slavery in cinema were like it was in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel. The slaves were happy and contented and too simple to live on their own. The Civil War was unnecessary and brought on by a handful of fanatics in the North.” The film’s final scenes show Brown before he is hung in 1859, followed by a happy kiss of the newlyweds, Flynn and de Havilland, all two years before the entire country entered its greatest conflagration that claimed more than half a million lives, finally “ending” slavery as a legal institution in the United States.

Former Klansman becomes part of Hollywood whitewash of Southern bushwhacking

The other noteworthy and historically inaccurate portrayal of Kansas-related bushwhacking violence is Clint Eastwood’s disturbing 1976 revisionist film The Outlaw Josey Wales. While supposedly based on a true Southern fighter, the film rewrites the script of historic events. Instead of violent Confederate bushwhackers who murdered indiscriminately, as they did in Lawrence, Southerners are portrayed as victims of murderous Jayhawkers and Union soldiers, who kill innocent women and slaughter surrendering prisoners, and hound Wales to Texas. The film was based on a novel, Gone to Texas, by Asa Carter, also author of a popular kid’s book called the Education of Little Tree.

At the time the film was made in 1976, it was unknown that Carter had reinvented himself. Instead of being a Cherokee Indian as he claimed, Carter was in fact a former Alabama Klansman, avowed racist, and speechwriter for Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. The books served as a clever reinvention for a man preaching against “government intrusion,” as Carter did for Wallace with racist hate language. Even his supposed Cherokee words were fiction. As for Josey Wales, the film helped to reinforce Southern stereotypes of Northern aggression and Southern innocence (despite its holding 4 million in captivity), while boosting Eastwood’s maverick filmmaking career.

In 2013, in an era when slavery seems to be as thriving an enterprise globally as it was in the antebellum South, perhaps it is time reexamine on the big screen the complex events in Kansas and Virginia and that fanatical revolutionary who committed his life to ending the institution forever. I just do not want the filmmaker to be Eastwood, Tarantino, or even Spielberg, nor a vampire camp production. Time to let someone else tell a tale that still needs to be told. Love or hate him, Brown was right about slavery’s stain on the nation. Brown’s enemies “could kill him,” wrote freed slave and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “but they could not answer him.”