Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (3): The Throat

throatIf you’ve never read The Throat but intend to, then stop reading now. This analysis will ruin any chance for a rewarding experience of all its surprises. For that matter, read Koko and Mystery beforehand, and “swallow” those novels as the title of this one urges.

The Throat is not only the best Blue Rose novel; it’s one of my favorite novels of all time. I say this with the deflective irony such a statement needs. It’s the most self-indulgent of the trilogy (at a whopping 689 pages), unconstrained by the discipline and tight writing of its predecessors, while shamelessly recycling their contents: Milwaukee is again transformed in an alternate setting; the protagonist was molested as a child like Koko’s villain, and hit by a car like Mystery’s hero. The specter of Vietnam is back. Tom Pasmore is back, now an adult and every bit as resourceful as Lamont von Heilitz. By this point Straub was risking beating a dead horse. But the redundancies work when taken to the next level. Everything that went before serves as a mere foreshadowing of the grand homicidal opera that is Blue Rose. He’s back after 41 years, and his story is a juggernaut.

It’s also impossible to figure out. In Koko it was hard to guess the killer’s identity, and in Mystery it was easier, but in The Throat there is no way in hell you would ever conclude that Mike Hogan is Fee Bandolier. On top of that is another Blue Rose killer, a copycat revealed in an outrageous twist that ends up eating the narrative’s tail. Some consider all of this a cheat for not giving the reader half a chance; but I don’t think so. It’s a testimony to Straub’s talents that he can make a mystery so deeply rewarding even when the clues are too hard, and when you enjoy going back afterwards and ruminating on them.

As for the title, it makes no sense. It’s the most meaningless title of any novel I’ve read. “The Throat” doesn’t refer to anyone’s physical anatomy. The Blue Rose killer slashed his victims’ throats, but also stabbed them in the heart. Straub has said that this novel “swallows” the previous two, Koko and Mystery, in a metafictional way — and I paid lip-service to that in the spoiler warning at the top — but that’s a very abstruse metaphor. I defy anyone who has read The Throat to say honestly that he or she grasps the title without having it explained by the author. I love it anyway. It’s one of my favorite book titles. It’s sounds great — I want to say it out loud when I look at the cover. At the very least, the novel’s theme of inhuman violence and deep scars suggests a guttural tone or atmosphere.

The Throat is a triumph because its problematic elements are either invisible or work strangely for it. It’s hard to say whether it’s more like Koko or Mystery. It channels Koko with the plot of a serial killer who is difficult (if at all possible) to figure out, and for themes of child abuse and the Vietnam War. It’s like Mystery for centering on the viewpoint of a great protagonist, in this case the very best Peter Straub has written. I could spend hours inside Tim Underhill’s head. He’s better than even Tom Pasmore, though it’s a close call; their team-up in this novel is such a treat that I could wish for a spin-off series modeled on the detective duo Jago & Litefoot.

I’m going to review the plot, briefly as possible and thoroughly as necessary. We need these facts at the ready.

The Plot

The story is set in 1991, and begins with Tim Underhill getting a phone call from his old high school friend John Ransom, who tells him that his wife April is in a coma. She was beaten and left for dead in the St. Alwyn Hotel with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the second Blue Rose victim of 1950. Five days before April, an unidentified man was killed in an alley outside the hotel, also with a “Blue Rose” calling card, like the first victim of 1950. Ransom knows that Tim wrote a fictionalized account of the Blue Rose murders in a novel called The Divided Man, in which Tim followed the official line that the police detective in charge of the Blue Rose investigation, William Damrosch (called Hal Esterhaz in Tim’s novel), was the Blue Rose killer. But even though Damrosch’s suicide note implied his guilt, Tim never really trusted it, and he later learned that it was Glendenning Upshaw who framed Damrosch and engineered his suicide. (Upshaw was responsible for the attack on the fake Blue Rose victim, Doctor Laing, which is the story of Mystery.) Tim and Ransom begin working on solving the original and present Blue Rose murders. Tim spots a man following Ransom on their way to visit April in the hospital. The next day, April is murdered in her hospital bed. A serial killer named Walter Dragonette, who calls himself the the “Meat Man”, is arrested by the police. He claims to be the Blue Rose killer, but it becomes obvious that he’s not. The next week, the first Blue Rose victim is identified at the morgue as Grant Hoffman, a student at the college where Ransom teaches. The Blue Rose killer seems to have a vendetta against John Ransom.

On the other hand, Tim learns that April had been working on a history project about one of the Millhaven bridges, and he spots the man who was following Ransom parked outside an old taproom near the bridge. He and Ransom break into the taproom, and find a torture chair in the cellar, along with fragments of a note that says, “Jane Wright, Alle-to-n, 1977”. They think this cellar could be a torture playground for the Blue Rose killer, and that Jane Wright was one of his victims. Tim wonders if April was killed because her history project led her too close to the Blue Rose killer’s hideout. On this reasoning, the killer would have nothing particular against John Ransom, and the murder of Grant Hoffman is mysterious.

A little over halfway through the novel, Tim and Ransom learn that the day manager of the St. Alwyn Hotel, Bob Bandolier, was the original Blue Rose killer: a Nazi of the private life who beat his wife, and who killed victims inside or near the hotel in order to “pay back” the St. Alwyn for firing him. They also learn that Bob had a son named Fee, who was sent away to live with relatives in Tangent Ohio, about a year after the murders, when he was seven or eight years old. Fee went straight into the military after high school in 1961, but his relatives say that he must have changed his name, because no one could track him down after that. After nights of detective work with Tom Pasmore, Tim realizes that Fee must have returned to Millhaven in 1979 and acquired his father’s old house, vacated since Bob died in 1972. Reason being, the Bandolier house has been owned by a fake company since ’79, and the front man for this company, William Writzmann, is the man who was following John Ransom to the hospital, and who was parked outside the abandoned taproom where Tim and Ransom later found the torture cellar. It turns out this fake company owns the taproom too. Tim concludes that Fee Bandolier is the new Blue Rose killer, following in his father’s footsteps, and that Writzmann works for him somehow. Soon after that, Tim realizes that Fee must be a Millhaven homicide detective, when he learns that one of the listed officers of Fee’s fake company is a bogus name referring to the head of the Millhaven homicide unit back in the ’70s, a name that only a cop would know. Soon after this realization, William Writzmann is found dead near a tavern close to the St. Alwyn, with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the third Blue Rose victim of 1950. Tim deduces that Fee killed his own thug because Tim and Ransom were getting too close to him.

Tim and Ransom begin to suspect that Paul Fontaine, the detective in charge of the Blue Rose case, is Fee, since he keeps insisting that Tim stop meddling in the Blue Rose affair and go back home to New York. Tom Pasmore agrees with Tim that Fontaine is probably Fee. He also deduces that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, a figure we have seen in flashbacks at many points in the novel. Bachelor was a Green Beret feared by every soldier on earth, and a full-blown psychopath who engaged in rites of murder and cannibalism. John Ransom was a captain in Vietnam at the same time, and in 1964 he was sent to retrieve Bachelor out of the field and bring him in to his superiors for questioning. Bachelor evaded Ransom and tricked him into capturing his subordinate instead. Later, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Bachelor went full rogue and betrayed his country by waging a personal war on Captain Ransom, tipping off the Vietcong who attacked Ransom’s camp and killed everyone except Ransom, who barely escaped. Tim likes Pasmore’s theory that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor. The initials F.B. are promising, and the Vietnam connection is off the scales: Bachelor was a psychopath like Blue Rose and was Ransom’s enemy — a clear motive for killing people like Hoffman and April who are connected to Ransom. Tim already learned that Fee changed his name after he graduated from high school in Tangent Ohio and enlisted in the army, and so he flies out to Tangent to visit a retired colonel and ask him if a Franklin Bachelor is listed in the 1961 records. They find Bachelor listed, and the colonel says he even remembers what he looked like. Tim shows him a photograph of a group of Millhaven police detectives, and the colonel positively identifies Paul Fontaine as Bachelor.

Now fully convinced that Detective Paul Fontaine is Fee Bandolier (the son of the original Blue Rose killer), who changed his name to Franklin Bachelor (the psychopathic Green Beret), who has every reason to hate John Ransom, Tim returns to Millhaven, and he and Ransom plan to bring down Fontaine. They find him late at night at the Bandolier home, and confront him. John’s father-in-law (April’s father) is with them, and he shoots Fontaine, killing him. Tim tells the police that Fontaine was the Blue Rose killer, but the police cover everything up to preserve their reputation.

Tim returns to New York but is contacted two weeks later by Tom Pasmore, who tells him they made a grievous error. Paul Fontaine could not have been the Blue Rose killer. One of Fee’s victims, the “Jane Wright of Alle-to-n in 1977” found in the taproom owned by Fee’s fake company, turns out to be Jane Wright of Allerton Ohio, murdered in 1977; Paul Fontaine was a detective in another state at that time. Tim flies back to Millhaven, and he and Pasmore set a trap for the real killer. He turns out to be Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan, Fontaine’s superior, and widely admired by Millhaven’s citizens. They lure Hogan into an old theater, where Tim kills him. Later that morning, Tim contacts news reporters to be sure there is no police cover-up this time. Finally, he goes to John Ransom, and tells him they were wrong about Fontaine; Fee Bandolier was Mike Hogan. Then comes the outrageous twist: Tim accuses Ransom of killing his wife. Hogan murdered only the third Blue Rose victim (Writzmann, his own thug); the first two victims (Grant Hoffman and April Ransom) were killed by none other than John Ransom himself. That twist demands thorough explanation.

The Clues: Fee Bandolier = Michael Hogan

On one level, the new Blue Rose killer is easy to figure out. He’s Fee Bandolier, son of Bob Bandolier the original Blue Rose. Tim and Ransom learn the existence of Fee at the same time they learn Bob was the psycho killer of 1950, about 60% of the way through the novel (p 413). When Tim brings this information to Pasmore, it doesn’t take long for them to deduce that Fee is also a psychopath (p 446), especially after Pasmore calls his Aunt Judy in Ohio, and she describes Fee as having been a disturbed and abused child. The mystery is who the hell Fee Bandolier is, since he vanished from the human record after graduating from high school in 1961 and enlisting in the army.

Tim and Ransom (and then Pasmore) become convinced that he is Detective Paul Fontaine, and they receive what appears to be unshakable confirmation of this. They confront Fontaine, he is killed in the ensuing shootout, and that appears to wrap up the mystery of Blue Rose. Two weeks later, Tim and Pasmore realize that Fontaine could not have been the killer, and by shrewdly manipulating the police they find out it’s really Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan. I don’t know of any reader who figured this out. There are few clues it could be Hogan, and most of them aren’t clues to speak of.

(1) The first (and only real) clue are Hogan’s resemblances to Clark Gable, in bold:

I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a real detective, someone even Tom Pasmore would respect. Michael Hogan possessed a powerful personal authority. Hogan had the uncomplicated masculinity of old movie stars like Clark Gable or William Holden, both of whom he resembled in a generalized, real-world fashion. (p 161)

That powerful and unaffected natural authority that distinguished Michael Hogan radiated out from him like an aura and caused most of the people in the room to glance at him. I suppose great actors also have this capacity, to automatically draw attention to themselves. And Hogan had the blessing of looking something like an actor without at all looking theatrical — his kind of utterly male handsomeness, cast in the very lines of reliability, steadiness, honesty, and a tough intelligence, was of the sort that other men found reassuring, not threatening. As I watched Hogan it occurred to me that he actually was the kind of person that an older generation of leading men had impersonated on screen, and I was grateful that he was in charge of April’s case. (p 256)

When Tim is later asking the neighbors about Bob Bandolier, one of them says,

“That Bandolier, he was handsome as Clark Gable, but no good! Beat his wife black and blue!” (p 318)

Obviously Mike Hogan, a man in his late 40s, cannot be Bob Bandolier, who if alive would be in his late 60s or early 70s, but is in any case long dead. But the next day Tim learns that Bob had a son Fee (from Theresa Sunchana, on p 413), and so we might wonder if Mike Hogan is Fee, if we remember the Clark Gable association by that point. I did remember it on my first reading of The Throat, but I dismissed it as a Straubian red herring.

(2) The second clue is a non-clue, or a clue after the fact, because Straub doesn’t provide enough description. To the reader this looks like unshakable proof that Paul Fontaine is Blue Rose. By the time Tim has guessed that Fee Bandolier changed his name to Franklin Bachelor when joining the military, he asks Colonel Hubbel to identify Bachelor in a photo of some Millhaven police officers. We read that Hubbel

planted the tip of his right index finger on top of Paul Fontaine’s face. “There he is, right there, that’s the boy. Yep. Franklin Bachelor. Or whatever his real name was.” (p 518)

What we don’t see is that Hubbel is not really pointing at Paul Fontaine, even though that’s how Tim interprets it. Hubbel’s finger is more on top of Fontaine’s face, and actually pointing to the face of Mike Hogan who is standing behind Fontaine. Tom Pasmore figures it out at the end (pp 657-658), after he and Tim have trapped and killed Hogan. He takes out the photo Tim had showed Hubbel, and then points. To his disgust, Tim sees that

the tip of Tom’s finger aimed directly at the next man in the picture, Michael Hogan. He wasn’t pointing at Fontaine, he was obliterating him. “I think — I think I’m an idiot,” I said. “Maybe a moron. Whichever one is dumber.” (p 658)

Tim had seen the colonel pointing at Fontaine because he had been expecting him to identify Fontaine. But there was nothing in the text to give us a shot at figuring that out. That’s why Hubbel’s identification of Fontaine looked like the unshakable proof that Fontaine was Blue Rose.

(3) There might even be a third clue that Paul Fontaine is a bum steer, though it’s outside the structure of the narrative. Straub could be using Fontaine as the functional equivalent of William Damrosch. Both men were in charge of Blue Rose killings before dying tragically (Damrosch in 1950, Fontaine in 1991), and since Damrosch was wrongly thought to be the killer, perhaps we should conclude — as devotees of Straubian metafiction — that Fontaine is too. I only thought of this “clue” on my seventh reading of The Throat.

Blue Rose in Vietnam: Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor

Long before he became Mike Hogan, Fee Bandolier was Franklin Bachelor, during his military service in Vietnam. He was Major Bachelor, or just “The Major” — a Green Beret who became a legend among grunts, respected and then widely feared. He got results but crossed way too many lines. Finally his CIA superiors sent someone to retrieve him out of the field and bring him in for questioning; that person was Captain John Ransom.

In order to avoid Ransom, Bachelor had his subordinate impersonate him while he escaped into the hills, and Ransom never ended up confronting Bachelor or even seeing him. When he got to Bachelor’s camp, he found that the Bru tribesmen had been slaughtered and cannibalized. It’s a terrifying account, gleaned through the journal of Colonel Runnel which is read by Tim:

Bachelor knew that Captain Ransom was on his way to take him back to the United States for questioning. At that point he murdered his own followers. In cold blood, he dispatched those who could not keep up on a high-speed escape through rough terrain. Women. Children. The old and the weak, all were executed or mortally wounded, along with any able-bodied men who opposed Bachelor’s scheme. Then Bachelor and his remaining men boiled the flesh off some of the bodies and made a last meal of their dead. I believe it is even possible that Bachelor’s people voluntarily accepted death, cooperated in their own destruction. He held them under his sway. They believed he possessed magical powers. If Bachelor ate their flesh, they would live in him. (p 349)

Bachelor went rogue after this and began a personal vendetta against John Ransom, who in Bachelor’s mind had forced him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his Bru. Years later, around the time of the Tet Offensive (1968), Bachelor betrayed his country, duping the Vietcong into thinking the base commanded by Ransom at Lang Vo would be the next thorn in their side after Khe Sanh. The Vietcong reacted by descending on Lang Vo and devastating the place, though Ransom escaped.

This being a Peter Straub novel, we might guess that Colonel Runnel’s account isn’t quite the real story, and sure enough, at the end of The Throat we learn that it was actually John Ransom who slaughtered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers. Bachelor did perform cannibalistic rites, but he didn’t victimize his own followers; he just left them behind if they were too weak to follow. Ransom wanted to be like the legendary Bachelor and tap into mystical awareness through the most intimate forms of violence. That’s what we learn in the Ransom Twist.

The Ransom Twist

It comes in The Throat’s final pages. The Blue Rose victims Grant Hoffman and April Ransom were not killed by the new Blue Rose killer Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor), but by someone else copying the old killings: John Ransom himself. He murdered his wife for the oldest reasons: for her money, for her affair with a young artist, and for making his life a marital prison. “You’re worse than Hogan,” says Tim. “He couldn’t help killing, but you murdered two people for the sake of your own comfort.” (p 673)

Subsequent readings of The Throat show how obvious-yet-not it is that John Ranson killed his wife. The clues are small and subtle but there, pretty much whenever Ransom is on screen. What he says and the way he reacts to things are the reactions of a guilty man. But they’re equally the behaviors of an irascible man with a short temper coping with the loss of his wife. That’s what makes him hard to catch onto.

And it’s a brilliant twist, no question. It’s entirely believable that John Ransom would kill his wife, given his hollow character and his history of esoteric violence in Vietnam. The problem is the relationship between John Ransom and Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor). It asks abusively much of us to believe in the coincidence of John Ransom exploiting the Blue Rose murders of the past while having no idea (at the time) who Blue Rose was (Bob Bandolier) or that his son (Fee Bandolier) even existed, while that son turns out to be the very Franklin Bachelor whom Ransom is trying to blame as a new Blue Rose killer. The true reason Ransom invited Tim out to Millhaven was to sell him the idea that Franklin Bachelor was the Blue Rose Killer. First he floated the idea to Tim that he thought Blue Rose might be an old soldier, and later told Tim melodramatic tales about his Vietnam assignment to bring Bachelor back to his superiors.

But Ransom had no idea that Bachelor was actually living in Millhaven, just as he had no idea that he was ever from Millhaven in the first place. His plan depended on the fiction that Bachelor would (supposedly) come in from somewhere out of town after seeing Ransom’s picture in the paper with April from her public awards ceremony, and then exact revenge on him for Vietnam. According to Ransom (and the journal of Colonel Runnel), Bachelor harbored a fury against Ransom for forcing him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his own followers. But Tim guesses that it was Ransom, not Bachelor, who murdered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers in Vietnam — including Bachelor’s Bru wife and child — which turns out to be true; but, as Ransom retorts to Tim’s accusation, this simply gives Bachelor all the more reason to want revenge on Ransom: to kill his wife April as just payback.

Except that’s not what happened. Hogan (Bachelor) didn’t kill April out of his fury with Ransom. He had his thug William Writzmann beat April to shut her up. She had been making inquiries for a special history project about the Green Woman Taproom, which was where Hogan killed his victims and kept detailed diaries of their torments. If April’s relationship to John Ransom wasn’t enough to move Hogan to kill her, then her getting close to his torture playground would have surely done so. It’s preposterous that a serial killer like Hogan would have had her merely beaten as a warning, and risk her continuing her investigation. Ransom, for his part, had no idea who beat up April when he found her bloodied in the car. All he knew was that this was his opportunity to kill April as he’d been planning for some time, and blame it on the old Blue Rose killer. So that’s what he did.

All of this collapses under too many pressure points: Hogan and Ransom, arch-enemies in Vietnam, are now living together in the same city. Each has multiple reasons to kill April, and plan to assault her around the same time. Hogan however, incredibly, does not kill her, only has her worked over. Ransom finishes Hogan’s work, killing his already bludgeoned wife, utterly clueless as to who beat her or why. He exploits the Blue Rose murders of the past, not knowing that Bob Bandolier was the killer, or that Bob had a son Fee who is a new Blue Rose killer; also not knowing that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, whom Ransom did know (though never actually saw) in Vietnam, and whom Ransom is trying to blame as a Blue Rose killer — which, surprise, Bachelor already is!

Straub either got lost up his own ass, or he’s a metafictional genius; I’m not sure which. The funny thing is, the Ransom twist works for me. John Ransom is a violent asshole who would kill for selfish and petty reasons. It’s a good payoff to his character. If Blue Rose ends up diminished by it, it’s at least masked by the fact that Hogan got only 17 pages of screen time anyway. We’ve been with Ransom all the way through.

The Meat Man

I said that The Throat is an indulgent novel, and the most egregious indulgence is the side plot of “The Meat Man”, Walter Dragonette, who is clearly intended as a combination of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. He’s a red herring that entertains on shock value, and a sure tipping point for readers eager to accuse Straub of laziness or just plain ridiculousness.

This fifty-page section could pass for boilerplate slasher. On the morning April Ransom is murdered in her hospital bed, two boys (Akeem, 9, and Kwanza, 7) living across from Dragonette’s home skip across the man’s lawn and peer into his living room, hoping to get a look at the huge television set which they frequently hear at high volume blasting out the sounds of films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “where folks got hunted down and cut up, man, right there in your face” (p 146). They find, to their surprise, no TV, and to their horror, the corpse of an African American lying in a sea of bloody newspapers, with a broken hacksaw blade sticking out. The kids hadn’t been hearing movies at all. They race back across the street screaming for their parents who call the police, and by the time Walter Dragonette has returned from his morning trip to the hardware store (to buy a new hacksaw), practically the entire Millhaven police force is waiting for him. For years this guy has been inviting people home, slaughtering them in his living room, fucking their corpses, and then sawing them into pieces.

Inside the home the cops find a meat factory, and the inventory goes on for two pages (pp 152-153). In a refrigerator: four heads (two black males, one white male, one white female), two severed penises, a human heart on a white china plate, a human liver wrapped in Clingfilm, along with normal food like bread, mustard, and lettuce. In a long freezer: six more heads (three male, three female), two pairs of male human legs without feet, a freezer bag of entrails labeled STUDY, two pounds of ground round, and the hand of a preteen girl minus three fingers. In two 60-gallon drums of water and pickled preservatives: headless torsos. Around the house: human skulls meticulously cleaned, electric drills and saws, baking soda, and carving knives.

These graphic horrors fill a certain void in The Throat, where the Blue Rose killer is kept off screen and the narrative relies on deeper and more psychological terrors. It’s a contrivance untypical of Straub — seriously, this disorganized killer has been making his home a slaughterhouse for over eighteen months, and he just happens to get caught on the morning April Ransom comes out of her coma and is killed by Blue Rose! — but I can’t deny the detour is immensely entertaining. Appreciation of this depends on how individual readers react to the switch in tone, but I believe The Throat’s scope is wide enough to accommodate it.

Metafictional Masturbation

And yet The Throat’s most significant indulgence lies in its first-person point of view. “I” narratives lend themselves to excess anyway, and it’s clear from page 1 that Straub will be pushing the envelope. Tim Underhill, author of The Divided Man, explains to us that he actually co-authored Koko and Mystery with Peter Straub. This allows Straub the masturbatory fantasy that he wrote some of his best work with his best literary creation.

It also lets those novels off the hook to a certain extent where they blundered. For example, in my retrospective of Koko I mentioned the problem of how Tim could have written The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world (of Koko) Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Tim doesn’t become aware of this until the end of the novel. And the novel is set in 1982-1983. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years earlier, in the early ’70s? The Throat answers that question: The fifth Blue Rose killing represents the butcher from Illinois, Heinz Stenmitz, who molested Tim when he was a child. Manny Dengler is a real character (he appears in one of The Throat’s flashbacks, pp 63-66), but in Koko he is as much a fictitious vessel for Tim’s experiences. Mystery’s Tom Pasmore is also real; he plays a major role in The Throat. But he wasn’t hit by a car as described in Mystery; that, we now learn, was Tim’s accident (p 40) projected onto Pasmore.

The Throat, in other words, becomes the “real story” to which Koko and Mystery serve as reflective preludes. Like The Divided Man, they are Timothy Underhill’s sounding boards as he navigates his personal traumas. This seems to be what Straub means by the The Throat “swallowing” those novels. Here’s a chart I made to show how everything looks from within the assumed reality of The Throat.

 

. The Divided Man (1972) Koko (1988) Mystery (1990) The Throat (1993)
Author(s) of the Novel
Tim Underhill Tim Underhill & Peter Straub Tim Underhill & Peter Straub (N/A: The Throat is the assumed reality)
Killer(s) of the Novel
Blue Rose Killer (Hal Esterhaz) Koko (Manny Dengler) Glendenning Upshaw Blue Rose Killer (Bob Bandolier in 1950); New Blue Rose Killer (Fee Bandolier, aka Mike Hogan in 1991); Copycat Blue Rose Killer (John Ransom in 1991)
Period of the Novel
1950 1982-83 1962 1991
Role of the Blue Rose murders Main plot None (a character reads The Divided Man) Side plot (the doctor is a fake Blue Rose victim) Main plot (there is a new Blue Rose Killer)
Setting of Blue Rose Murders (1950)
Monroe, Illinois Mill Walk, Caribbean Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Piano Player Prostitute Prostitute
2nd Murder Prostitute Piano Player Piano Player
3rd Murder Doctor Doctor (survived) Hustler
4th Murder Hustler Butcher Doctor (survived)
5th Murder Butcher Butcher
Police Detective in Charge
Hal Esterhaz William Damrosch William Damrosch
Blue Rose Calling Card Piece of paper next to victim Chalk on wall Magic marker on wall
Setting of New Blue Rose Murders (1991)
Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Grant Hoffman
2nd Murder April Ransom
3rd Murder William Writzmann
Police Detective in Charge
Paul Fontaine
Blue Rose Calling Card Magic marker on wall

 

Loving Fee Bandolier: The Trauma of Tim Underhill

In The Throat Tim Underhill finally remembers his childhood trauma. You’d think he would have done so long before, having projected it onto the characters in his novels, but his mind has kept it suppressed. He suffers panic attacks, hardly knowing why, sometimes almost passing out. He uses the gnostic gospels (to the amusing derision of John Ransom, who is a professor of religion) to aid his self-discovery:

All that saved me from another spell was the sudden memory of what I’d read in the gnostic gospel while I waited for John to come back from the hospital: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. [Gospel of Thomas 70] I was trying to bring it forth — but what in the world was it? (p 140)

He gets his answer toward the end (pp 604-605) when hit by a hideous flashback, and relives his seven-year old self giving the butcher Heinz Stenmitz a blowjob. He vomits in the street, and in sudden intuition realizes this is also what happened to Fee Bandolier — which is why Stenmitz was Bob Bandolier’s final Blue Rose victim.

According to Tom Pasmore, Tim has been obsessing Fee Bandolier all his life; he practically invented Fee in his novels years before he knew of his existence. On some level, says Pasmore, Tim loves Fee, whose sadistic home environment and Blue-Rose genes had set him on a path of rage and violence over the compassionate pacifism that Tim eventually chose. This comes to a head when he and Pasmore are about to trap Fee (Mike Hogan) and Pasmore says they will have to kill him rather than turn him in. It’s a moving passage (pp 635-637) and The Throat’s best:

“Are you thinking about disarming him and taking him to Armory Place [the police station]? Do you think he’ll confess? Or that we’d ever walk out of Armory Place? You know what would happen.”

I said nothing.

“Tim, I don’t even believe in the death penalty. But right now, the only alternative is to get out of here and go back home. I’ve spent about fifteen years working to get innocent men off death row — saving lives. That’s what I believe in. But this isn’t like anything else I know — it’s as if we discovered that Ted Bundy was a detective with so many fallbacks and paper trails that he could never be brought to justice in any normal way. Do you want to know how I really see this?”

“Of course I want to know,” I said.

“We’re going to set him free.”

As a euphemism for execution, the phrase was ludicrous. “Thanks for sharing that,” I said.

“Who is he now? Is that worth saving? That person is a being who has to kill over and over again to satisfy a rage so deep that nothing could ever touch it. But who is he, really?”

“Fee Bandolier,” I said.

“Right. Somewhere, in some part of himself he can’t reach, he is a small boy named Fielding Bandolier. That boy passed through hell. You’ve been obsessed with Fee Bandolier before you even knew he existed. You almost made him up out of your own history. Do you know why?”

“Because I identify with him,” I said.

“Because you love him,” Tom said. “You love the child he was, and that child is still present enough to make himself visible to you, and he makes himself visible to your imagination because you love him.”

I remembered the child who came forward out of the swirling dark, on his open palm the word that cannot be read or spoken. He was the child of the night, William Damrosch, Fee Bandolier, and myself, all of whom had passed through the filthy hands of Heinz Stenmitz.

I tear up every time I read this part, and not just out of grief for Fee Bandolier, but because Tim and Tom are both so right. If pacifism must yield to pragmatic mercy, it’s only because Fee is too dangerous and protected by the law to let live. “Setting him free” sounds like a right-wing platitude, but in this case it’s not.

The Mighty Throat

So why is The Throat one of my favorite novels, along with mighty classics like Lord of the Rings and Shogun? I’ve had a hard time explaining it. Tolkien and Clavell require no defense; Peter Straub is more an acquired taste. I’ve urged the Blue Rose trilogy on many people who give up on it, usually halfway through Koko. The style is too cerebral for them. They find Straub a chore.

Frankly, I’ve had more fun reading Straub than most authors. That may run counter to accepted truths of him being “colder to the touch” than Stephen King, but I don’t find Straub to be “cold” at all. Starting with Koko in particular, Straub embarked on a string of work so focused and immersive that it seems to have given him discernment over existential mysteries, let alone the ability to write suspenseful ones. His characters seethe with fury and pain, and reach for love and hope, and he treats them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity. I never grow tired of his work. Few authors have his intuitive a grasp of aesthetics and discipline, and even when he goes against the grain of that discipline — as he has done in The Throat like no other novel — he has fail-safes that leave the work stunningly intact.

I could say that I love The Throat for all these reasons, which is true, but none of that is quite the answer. The Throat occupies me every time I read it, to the exclusion of everything else that requires my attention. I want to stay with Tim Underhill, just as he wants to linger at Tom Pasmore’s, in those comfortable chairs leafing through the Blue Rose files late into the night: Despite my exhaustion, I wanted to stay another half hour; I thought it was a privilege. (p 305) A privilege, yes, to read story like this. And like Pasmore, I don’t want the Blue Rose mystery to be over. Tim and Tom feel like family, and I could follow them 700 pages more.

Rating: 5+ stars out of 5

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Poland and the Holocaust

There’s been a lot in the media about Poland criminalizing any mention of Poles being involved in the Holocaust, but as Deane Galbraith shows, these reports are misleading and never quote the legislation:

“The amendment does not apply to those who blame individual Poles for individual acts of collaboration with the Nazis. The scale of the involvement of Poles in the Holocaust is a matter of ongoing historical debate. Polish authorities tend to emphasize the role of those who assisted Jews during the German occupation, and minimize the role of those Poles who were complicit. Others have less favourable opinions of Polish involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. Yet this debate will still be allowed under the legislation, as the legislative amendments don’t apply to this debate. In addition, there is an explicit exemption even for attributing it to the Polish Nation or State, for ‘artistic or academic activity’ (Article 55A(3)).

“What the Polish legislation does deal with is the false attribution of the German Holocaust to the Polish Nation or State. This is beyond doubt, as the Polish State did not in fact exist after the German takeover during WWII, except in exile. Poles have been understandably upset that the German death camps have been regularly, but misleadingly, referred to as ‘Polish death camps’ – including in a 2012 speech by the US President Barack Obama. They are especially aggrieved given the fact that 6 million Poles died at the hands of the German Nazis, including 3 million Jewish Poles and 3 million non-Jewish Poles.

“As recently as 29 June 2017, Israel agreed that the description ‘Polish death camps’ was incorrect… But now that Poland has made the very phrase ‘Polish Death Camps’ illegal, Israel has taken the opposite stance, interpreting the Polish legislation as itself being a ‘denial of the Holocaust’. The Israeli response is, at least, a badly judged response based on poor news reporting.”

As a sidebar, I don’t believe government should be enacting any legislation at all like this: free speech should never be criminalized. But the point isn’t that Poland doesn’t have the First Amendment. As objectionable as the legislation is, it isn’t nearly as odious or restrictive as the media has been making it out to be. It doesn’t restrict academic debates about the issue, nor any discussion (academic or otherwise) of the involvement of individual Poles. The media repeatedly implies those things, in the posts cited by Galbraith, and also yesterday’s Conversation article “New ‘Holocaust law’ highlights crisis in Polish identity”. The latter concludes:

“Through the new ‘Holocaust Law,’ the government is, in effect, trying to repress knowledge of crimes committed against Jews by Poles… Those Poles opposed to the law – and there are many, judging by the number of organizations and public figures denouncing it and the number of petitions circulating – hope that it will be deemed unconstitutional because it represses freedom of speech and could significantly curtail academic research.”

But again, the legislation doesn’t do either of the things I italicized. Yes, it represses free speech — which makes it bad legislation by definition — but not to the extent the Israelis and the media are implying.

Read Galbraith’s whole piece here.

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (2): Mystery

(As with Koko so with Mystery. This review will ruin your experience of the novel if you read it beforehand. It’s full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. Avert thine eyes accordingly.)

Whenever I’m asked to name a modern novel — written within the last 30 years or so — that qualifies as lasting literature, three come to mind: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Peter Straub’s Mystery. And if I could chose only one for the honor, it would have to be the last. Mystery is the sort of novel you imagine Cliff Notes for. It’s pristine writing of unerring expression and appreciates in value on each reread. This was my third, and I was savoring the prose more than ever. It’s the Glenlivet of the Blue Rose trilogy (I’d call Koko the snake wine, and The Throat Bacardi 151), a classic that thoroughly deserves retrospection.

The settings are inspired and critical to Mystery‘s success. The main theater is the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, where poor natives live under white elites who care for them like Donald Trump does hurricane victims. The other setting is Eagle Lake, a lakeside residence in Wisconsin where the Mill Walk elite fly to spend their summers. This allows Straub to cast “Milwaukee” in an alternate reality that is both exotic and surreal, which turns out to be perfect for a boy’s coming of age story. Tom Pasmore’s world is criminally real, but filtered through a lens that mutes the ugliness.

As for Pasmore himself, he’s one of the author’s best characters. The story starts with him at 10 years old, running down the streets of a rough neighborhood, getting bullied and then hit by a car, and almost killed. Straub had a near-death car hit like this as a child, and the autobiographical prints show. In recovery Pasmore becomes obsessed with reading (any book he can lay hands on), death, and solving murder mysteries. He soon turns 17; the fast-forwarding stops; and the mystery of Mystery is launched as he becomes mentored by an elderly detective. Together they work on solving two seemingly unrelated murders. One was the sister of a finance minister in present-day 1962. The other was a family friend, Jeanine Thielman, back in 1925. The killer of both is none other than Tom Pasmore’s grandfather: Glendenning Upshaw, the rich tycoon who runs Mill Walk with the police in his back pocket. He is Mystery’s villain, staying mostly off-stage like Koko’s Manny Dengler, though not nearly as obscure.

The Clues

In Koko the killer’s identity is hard to figure out, and the reader plays detective along with the Vietnam vets. In Mystery we’re immersed in a young detective’s process, and sometimes we’re ahead of him. It’s not hard, for us, to peg Upshaw as the villain when Tom is shot at through his lodge window at Eagle Lake. Upshaw is raging at him over the phone for digging up the past, suddenly calms down and advises Tom to look out the window, at which point a bullet comes smashing through the glass and barely missing him.

The reader will surely recall Upshaw’s decision to send Tom up to Eagle Lake in the first place, back in part five. Tom and his mother were having lunch at his grandfather’s home, and Tom proceeded to royally piss him off by offering the opinion that the finance minister killed his own sister, and the Mill Walk police covered the whole thing up. Upshaw became agitated and belittled Tom, dismissing his theories as stupid and paranoid. Then he suddenly calmed down, and offered Tom help with his future:

Upshaw sampled the soup and looked at Tom again. He was no longer angry. “In a way I’m almost happy you have spoken as you have this morning. It means I’ve come to the right decision (bold mine). I think your horizons need widening.”

“My father said something about your being willing to set me up in business after I get out of college. That’s very generous. I don’t quite know what to say, except thanks. So thank you.”

His grandfather waved this away. “You’re applying to Tulane?”

Tom nodded.

“Stick with engineering. It’s a foundation. It’ll give you everything you need. If you want to study poetry and the collected works of V.I. Lenin, you can do it in your spare time.”

“I don’t know if I’d be a good engineer,” Tom said.

“Well, just what do you think you’d be good at? Biting the hand that feeds you? Insulting your family? I don’t think Tulane offers degrees in those subjects yet.” He simmered for a while. Tom and Gloria occupied themselves with their soup.

After a moment, his grandfather said, “Have you ever seen Eagle Lake?”

Tom looked up in surprise.

“I’ve been thinking of showing our old lodge a bit of life. How do you think you’d like to spend a month or so at the lake?”

“I’d love to. It would be great.”

“A carefree summer before your hard work begins.”

And then Tom understood — Eagle Lake was a reward for having agreed to major in engineering.

Except it wasn’t. It was his “reward” for making too much noise about the death of Marita Hasselgard, and accusing important people of involvement. On the face of it, Upshaw’s I’ve come to the right decision referred to sending Tom to college. But it really referred to the afterthought — or what seemed like one — about sending him up to the Wisconsin resort. Frankly I was suspicious about Upshaw even at this point, and not just because he’s nasty and unpleasant. (Victor Spitalny was nasty, but he wasn’t Koko’s killer; Upshaw could have been a false lead too.) There’s something subterranean about him that made me guess he was at least complicit in the killings. I didn’t think he would try having his own grandson killed to silence him.

Blue Rose

Only when Tom is on the plane back to Mill Walk, and he is discussing the Blue Rose murders of 1950 with Lamont von Heilitz, does he begin allowing himself the truth of his grandfather. The Blue Rose mystery will be the subject of The Throat, but the killings are tangentially relevant here, because one of the Blue Rose victims was a false flag — a victim of Glendenning Upshaw. Doctor Buzz Laing was stabbed and left for dead (though he survived the attack) with the calling card “Blue Rose”. Upshaw had arranged to have him killed and make it look like it was the Blue Rose killer. Von Heilitz doesn’t spell this out; he speaks in vague innuendos and mentions to Tom that his grandfather had arranged a different detective to be assigned to the Blue Rose case — as though this is some kind of hint.

Why did Upshaw want the doctor killed? Later towards the end, Tom calls Buzz Laing, and learns why he was fired from the hospital owned by his grandfather. Laing had called out a colleague for ignoring sexual abuse symptoms in one of his patients:

“One time I brought home the file of one of the patients Boney kept for himself, and I thought I saw some of the classic indications of real trouble, if you see what I mean. Vaginal warts, vaginal bleeding, and a couple of other things that at the time should at least have called for further investigation and were probably an indicator for psychiatric counseling. Do you see what I’m talking about? This was in the woman’s childhood. Really it could only mean one thing. I can’t be more specific, Tom. Anyhow, I said something about it to Boney, and he hit the ceiling. I was out on my ear, and that’s why I don’t have any patients at Shady Mount.”

The patient Laing is describing is Tom’s mother, Gloria Pasmore, though Tom doesn’t realize this yet. He later has a flash of intuition and recalls Laing’s comments as he and Detective Natchez are discussing Upshaw’s non-affairs with young women. Upshaw made a point to be seen in public with women like like Carmen Bishop and Barbara Deane so as to appear a “normal” man with appetites for younger women in their twenties. His true appetites were for prepubescent girls. He abused his daughter Gloria from a very early age, before she was even five, and hers was the patient file Laing saw by accident. Tom suddenly understands why his mother has always been such a mess — her anxieties and depressions and screams in the middle of the night.

Thus the root of the mystery: Jeanine Thielman had discovered that Upshaw was a pedophile and threatened to expose him. Upshaw killed her, up close and personal, unlike most of the dirty work he dumps on hit men, corrupt cops, and self-serving doctors. The Blue Rose case helps Tom solve the mystery in a roundabout way: Buzz Laing, the fake Blue Rose victim, had stumbled on Upshaw’s worst secret.

The Pasmore Pedigree

When Sherlock Holmes is your father and Jeffrey Epstein times ten is your grandfather — that pedigree. It took balls for Straub to use a character like Lamont von Heilitz. He is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show and so of course he’s a caricature; but he works. Had Straub used this figure in the gritty realistic framework of The Throat, the results would have laughable. In the more dreamy atmosphere of Mystery he fits hand in glove. In that sense von Heilitz is like Shadowland’s magician Coleman Collins, an archetype whose credibility depends more on the author’s writing style than the actual narrative.

It’s fitting that Mystery’s pivotal scene is the only one in the novel where Tom’s father and grandfather are both on screen. Tom and von Heilitz sneak onto the Upshaw grounds, and spy on Upshaw through a window as he opens their letters — the anonymous notes they mailed in order to “rattle his cage”. The notes say “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE”, “YOU HAVE TO BE STOPPED”, which mimic the implied accusations sent by Jeanine Thielman to Upshaw back in 1925, when she learned he was raping his four-year old daughter. As far as Upshaw knows, those notes had been destroyed, but Tom found them hidden at Eagle Lake. Upshaw’s reaction carries mountains of suspense through sheer body language:

Upshaw took up the red envelope. He looked at the handwriting and examined the postmark. Then he slit the envelope open and pulled out the sheet of yellow paper. He unfolded it and read.

Tom held his breath.

His grandfather was motionless for a second; and then, though he did not move, gesture, or change in any way, his body seemed to alter its dimensions, as if beneath the black suit it had suddenly deflated and expanded like a bullfrog’s air sac. He seemed to have drawn all the air in the room into himself. His arms and his back were as rigid as posts.

“And there we are,” von Heilitz said.

Tom’s grandfather whirled sideways in his chair and looked through the window and out across the terrace. Tom’s heart slid up into his throat and stayed there until Upshaw slowly revolved back to the note. He stared at it for another second. Then he pushed the yellow paper to the corner of his desk and picked up the envelope to look at the handwriting and the postmark. He turned his head to make sure the door was closed, and then looked back out the window. He pulled all the rest of the letters toward him and shuffled through them, setting before him on the desk a grey envelope and two white envelopes, set down the others, and held each of the three up to examine the printed address and the postmark. One by one, he slit them open and read the notes. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before reading the notes again. He pushed his chair away from the desk, and then stood and moved to the window and looked both right and left with an unconscious furtiveness Tom had never before seen in him.

“He really did kill her,” Tom said.

Few authors can write scenes like this. Upshaw is presumably deducing that von Heilitz is behind these perfidious notes, and sure enough he sends the police to kill him. Von Heilitz’s death is predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is. Someone has to pay for banging the bee nest. The tragedy is made worse, however, by Tom’s last words to his father. He resented von Heilitz for showing him the truth about his grandfather, and said things he didn’t mean — accusations of abandonment, letting his mother marry an ineffectual man to raise him, and using Tom as a tool to solve his pet crimes. His discovery of his father’s corpse inside the ransacked house is a well earned tear-jerker.

Eagle Lake = Shadowland

It struck me on my reread that Eagle Lake is a replay of Shadowland. A teenager named Tom (Flanagan, Pasmore) goes on a summer retreat at a spectacular place (Shadowland, Eagle Lake) on the arrangement of an elder mentor whose agenda is to kill him (Coleman Collins, Glendenning Upshaw). He has an affair with a girl (Rose Armstrong, Sarah Spence) to the jealousy of the boy she has been with for some time (Del Nightingale, Buddy Redwing). The first Tom suffers trial by crucifixion; the second Tom a trial by fire. The attempt on their lives fail, but someone else is killed (Del Nightingale, Barbara Deane). Shadowland and Eagle Lake become the punishing education grounds where Toms Flanagan and Pasmore learn how the professions they crave can kill them.

The major difference is Shadowland’s high stakes; it’s a complete tragedy. Del is killed (shapechanged by his Uncle Cole into a glass bird), while Tom Flanagan, though able to leave the fairyland (after being crucified), grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. His heartthrob Rose disappears into a water-world, to escape the feeling that she walks on knives. There’s tragedy in Mystery too, as we’ve just seen, when von Heilitz is killed, but Tom Pasmore transcends it and ends up doing well for himself (as we learn in The Throat). If he doesn’t exactly “get his girl”, the final pages at least hint at a friendship with Sarah Spence that will last. Also, Tom Flanagan suffers on a staggering level. His crucifixion is the most unspeakable torture of a teenager I’ve been subjected to in a novel. While Tom Pasmore is almost burned alive (the final attempt on his life by his grandfather), his torments are nothing compared to those of Flanagan. These differences make Shadowland a much darker story than Mystery, and arguably stronger; I’ve said before that it’s the best novel of Straub’s early horror period. But it’s still a close call. They are both extraordinary coming of age stories.

Every time I read Mystery, I wish the Eagle Lake section would last forever. It’s the longest of the eight parts, and the heart the novel, where Tom Pasmore’s vacation becomes ours — his swims in the lake, his clandestine affairs with Sarah Spence, his stand-offs against Redwing bullies, his conversations with people like Kate Redwing and Barbara Deane, and his inquisitive research that almost gets him killed three times. His investigation of Jeanine Thielman’s murder leads to unexpected twists, and we learn about past events in the ’20s through some colorful characters.

Intertextual context

Apart from one blunder, Straub keeps his metafiction under control, with none of the confusions and unlikelihoods of Koko. The single exception is the presence of Tim Underhill’s novel The Divided Man. It’s a fictionalized meditation on the Blue Rose killings, which happened in 1950, so that part is fine; but according to Koko and The Throat, Underhill didn’t write the novel until the early ’70s, after his Vietnam service. The Divided Man is an anachronism in a 1962 setting. (It would also mean that Underhill wrote the novel in the late 50s as a teenager, which is rather unlikely.)

It’s hard to overstate how inspired Mystery is. Between its alluring settings and precious character, Straub is able to infuse a coming of age story with his particular style of mystery where the past holds the present in a vise. And he’s actually done even better, as we’ll see in the next retrospective.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.

Free Speech on Campus (5): What Campuses Should and Shouldn’t Do

Hate speech codes are a bad idea, but it’s a mistake to ignore the harmful effects of hateful and bullying speech. According to the authors, “free speech advocates must acknowledge the admirable values that tempt people toward censorship, and then provide a road map for addressing these issues in a way that does not undermine higher education’s necessary commitment to free speech, academic freedom, unfettered inquiry, and robust debate”.

They offer a series of cans and can’ts, or shoulds and shouldn’ts for private universities. Here are the highlights.

  • Faculty members may choose to provide students warnings before presenting material that might be offensive or upsetting to them. Colleges and universities should not, however, impose requirements that faculty provide such “trigger warnings”.

Professors need to decide how to best educate their students without being micromanaged by the administration. In some cases a professor’s judgment might be that being exposed to disturbing material without warning will make for more effective instruction. Besides, understanding cuts both ways. Just as professors should not be tone deaf to the feelings of their students, students need to prepare themselves for the real world where they won’t be coddled.

  • Campuses should create “safe spaces” in educational settings that ensure that people feel free to express the widest array of viewpoints. They should not uses the concept of “safe spaces” to censor the expression of ideas considered too offensive for students to hear.

Put simply: you go to college not to learn things which comfort you, but to learn things that shatter you out of your comfort zones. That’s what education is about.

  • Campuses can sensitize faculty and students to the impact certain words will have, as part of an effort to create a respectful work and learning environment. But they should not prohibit or punish faculty or students from using words that some consider to be examples of “microaggressions”.

We should all listen when others tell us they feel insulted and hurt.

  • Campuses should expect university administrators to speak out against especially egregious speech acts and intolerance as a way of demonstrating the power of “more speech” rather than enforced silence. They should not expect the administrators to comment on or condemn every campus speech act that some person considers offensive.

It’s cliche by this point, but a lesson that’s being lost, that the best remedy for speech we don’t like is more speech — robust counter-speech that rigorously challenges what we object to.

The authors list other campus agenda items:

  • Protect the rights of all students to engage in meaningful protest and to distribute materials that get their message out, while at the same time preventing disruptions of university activities.
  • Ensure that campus dormitories are safe spaces of repose, short of imposing content-based restrictions on speech.
  • Establish clear reporting requirements so that incidents of discriminatory practices can be quickly investigated and addressed.
  • Encourage faculty and students to research and learn about the harms associated with intolerance and structural discrimination, and sponsoring academic symposia.
  • Organize co-curricular activities that celebrate cultural diversity and provide victims of hateful and bullying acts the opportunity to be heard.

In the final chapter we’ll see what’s ultimately at stake in all of this.

Free Speech on Campus (4): Hate Speech

The authors survey the Supreme Court rulings on hate speech issues (pp 82-97) and then with this background turn to the issue of hate speech codes in campus settings (97-110).

The problem is that in practice, hate speech codes are used less against the hateful slurs that inspire their passage, and more against opinions that people disagree with. For example, when the University of Michigan adopted hate speech codes in 1988, one student got in trouble because he claimed that Jewish people used the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Another student faced punishment for simply stating that he had heard minorities had difficulty in a particular course. A graduate student was at risk for exploring certain theories in his field of psychobiology. The courts then struck down the hate speech codes as unconstitutional, and between 1989-1995, the courts ruled similarly against the hate speech codes adopted by other colleges and universities.

Hate speech codes, in other words, “inescapably ban the expression of unpopular ideas and views, which is never tolerable in colleges and universities”. This relates to the problem I mentioned in the chapter-2 post, that one person’s hate is another’s struggle against injustice and oppression (Hirsi Ali, Nawaz).

Statistics are relevant. There is no evidence that hate speech laws or codes result in more tolerant attitudes. According to FBI reports, hate crimes in America decreased from 1996 to 2010 to 2015, without hate speech laws. (For that matter, same-sex marriage has gained much wider acceptance between 2001 and 2016, not because homophobic speech has been punished or silenced, but because of the increased presence of gay and lesbian voices in American culture and politics.) By contrast, in Europe, the Anti-Defamation League’s survey of anti-Semitism reports higher levels than in America, despite their having hate speech laws.

Some of today’s students like to claim that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, though of course it is. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment. Inciting violence and harassment aren’t either. Ditto for child pornography, the use of copyright, disturbing the peace, threatening national security, etc. These are sometimes called examples of “restrictions on free speech”, but they go beyond offensive opinion content and translate directly into harmful action or violating the rights of others. Child pornography is illegal not because of how offensive it is, but because it involves exploitation of children. Threats are illegal not because they’re emotionally upsetting, but because they cause a person to fear physical harm. Etc.

To censor hate speech would be to censor something solely on the basis of its offensiveness and opinion content, which is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to dismiss the emotional harm that comes by hate speech, and the authors address what can be done about that in the next chapter.

Free Speech on Campus (3): Colleges and Universities

In chapter 3 the authors distinguish between two zones of free expression in college and university settings: (1) a professional zone, which “protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse and responsible conduct in formal educational and scholarly settings”, and (2) a larger free speech zone, which “exists outside scholarly and administrative settings and where the only restrictions are those of society at large”. On this understanding, members of the campus community may say things in the free speech zone that they wouldn’t be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment.

In their view, colleges and universities should never punish faculty members or students who express controversial or offensive views outside the professional educational context, where there are no enforceable scholarly standards, and no disruption of the educational context other than the fact that people might take offense. So faculty and students who behave properly in the classroom and do not illegally harass others, should not be punished for controversial or offensive statements made on their own time. This is basically what is enforced in public universities, and the authors believe, as do I, that it should be enforced (though not legally required) at any institution of higher learning that wants to be taken seriously as such.

On the question of guest speakers, the authors bring up The Bell Curve, which is a good example since it was just last year that hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down Charles Murray (one of the book’s co-authors) and started violence that left a faculty member injured. The Bell Curve was published in 1994, and argued for racial differences in intelligence which account for different levels of economic and social success in America. Then as now, it was tempting to prevent the idea from being aired on a college platform, but rather than being worse off for it, society was better off since the book was subjected to rigorous scholarship and refuted on that professional basis. Angry students don’t have veto power, in any case, over students who want to hear the speaker.

The authors give a short history of colleges and universities in America, and their long road to intellectual freedom, culminating in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, and a good discussion of the “six-year war” fought long and hard over free speech rights on campus. How Berkeley has dramatically changed since then, with its students protesting Bill Maher as the 2014 commencement speaker for his supposed “hate speech”. Which is the subject of the next chapter.