Eugene Linden
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Tiny Country That Tells a Big Story

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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endangered animals
rapid climate change
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Books

Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Now Let Us Praise Fat!


This article ran in Forbes FYI a few years ago. It seems timely again with the ongoing debate about wether fat is good or bad. Let Us Now Praise Fat Historically, there are some good reasons why humans crave a fatty diet by Eugene Linden It is possible to starve to death eating lean meat. I'm not making this up. The ancient tribes of the southwest knew this and would not eat female bison in the spring because nursing and pregnant bison cows burned off their fat reserves during the winter months leaving few calories in their flesh that might help the natives to digest the pure protein of the meat. Explorers like Randolph Marcy discovered this truth the hard way. Members of his expedition to Wyoming continued to weaken and lose weight even thought they consumed six pounds of horse and mule meat a day. The problem: the horses and mules were so starved that their meat had no fat. Such stories fire the imaginations of fat lovers. We constantly remind ourselves that most of human history has been a battle to find fat, not avoid it. We note that the scrawny rickshaw drivers of Bombay and Calcutta put away thousands of calories a day and yet never gain an ounce. And is it not true that the Japanese, an ethnic group perpetually trotted out by researchers as exemplars of sensible eating (they even call their parliament the Diet) spend fortunes to buy Matsusaka beef, which comes from Wagyu cattle that have been pampered, massaged, and beer-fed to the point that the animals resemble mounds of fat with hooves, horns, and contented expressions. It is no accident that fat adds taste to foods: evolution is reinforcing our urge to eat something that we need in order to survive. Knowledgeable explorers of the rain forest pork up before expeditions because the extra weight gives them reserves of energy should they fall ill while in the forest. At the beginning of one trip that took me into a remote area of northern Congo, the seasoned botanist leading the trip told me how pygmy trackers would pat his protruding stomach, and, nodding with approval, say, "money!" This piece of bush savvy was music to my ears, and in the forest I consumed every fattening food imaginable -- sausages, peanut butter, cheeses, chocolate -- confident that I was going to burn it off slogging down sweltering trails. (In fact I lost 17 pounds in 12 days.) At the end of the trip I nodded wisely when I heard that a Japanese researcher, emaciated from months in this same jungle, had nearly died from malaria. Of course she got sick, I reasoned -- she had little strength to fight the invading microbes. Unfortunately, I don't get to the forest quite as often as I should, though I have admirably built up my reserves of "energy" for the next adventure whenever it comes. Nor am I a rickshaw pusher. In fact, I spend most of my time sitting in front of a cathode ray tube, hardly the situation nature envisioned when evolution created our cravings. Come to think of it, my lifestyle has disturbing similarities to that of the cattle that become Matsusaka beef. And so, while I secretly pray for a credible study exonerating fat, I have been cutting back on rich foods. Unlike our hunting and gathering ancestors I may well live past 90 -- but I may also hate every minute of it.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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