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Monday January 09, 2006

[It’s probably dumb to try and put a humorous spin on the abortion issue and the Alito hearings, but here goes anyway.] -- Eugene Linden

Pro-Life group says fire NASA chief

By Lamatty Hurstwhistle
Sentinel and Post Staff Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – At a hastily organized press conference, Dr. James Dobson, founder and president of the American Family Network, called for the firing of NASA administrator Digby Johnson because of the agency’s “consistent pattern of insinuating an anti-life agenda into its space missions.” Dobson said that his call was prompted when the space agency aborted the take off of the Space Shuttle Enterprise after the discovery of a leak in the vessel’s external fuel tank. “We watched for years while NASA deviously promoted a pro-abortion agenda,” said Dobson, “and it’s time we had an administrator who didn’t try to pollute outer space with his political views.” Dobson went on to say that thanks to NASA’s action, “we will never know what that mission might have accomplished.” When initially reached for comment, Johnson heatedly denied that the cancellation of last week’s mission had anything to do with a pro-abortion agenda. “We’re simply trying to protect the lives of astronauts and any suggestion otherwise is sheer lunacy.” Later, however, after consultations with White House officials, Johnson softened his remarks. “Every launch is precious,” said the somber former astronaut, and he vowed to pursue a full investigation into the circumstances that led to the cancellation of last week’s take off. The Republican leadership was quick to take up the issue. Breaking away from exercise hour to take a reporter’s questions at Eglin Federal Prison Camp in Florida, Rep. Tom Delay thundered into the receiver on his side of the glass partition in the visitor’s room: “Abortion in any form is an abomination!” Democratic response was muted at first, possibly because the leadership’s pollsters were attending a conference in Las Vegas. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office put out a statement which read in part, “It’s my firm belief that the captain of a space shuttle should have the right to make the choice to terminate a mission if he believes that a full-term countdown might threaten the safety of the crew.” “Typical,” sneered a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “If Democrats had been in charge of expeditions in Queen Isabella’s day, Columbus would have turned back before he passed the Azores.” As the day wore on, speculation grew as to who might replace Johnson as NASA administrator should his public show of contrition fail to appease the White House. Among the names most frequently mentioned have been Phyllis Schlafly and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “They have gold-plated, pro-life credentials,” gushed one Hill staffer, “and both have strong opinions on scientific matters.” Many observers viewed the new campaign as evidence of a new emboldened pro-life movement on the heels of the confirmation of Samuel Alito Jr. to the United States Supreme Court. Some bloggers, however, took a more cynical view. In a posting in the prominent liberal blog Talking Points Memo, Joshua Marshall suggested that Dobson might have chosen to push the issue to distract the media from newly surfaced emails in which the Christian right leader volunteered to be the mohel at a lavish bris organized by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Although still in its infancy, the campaign is already having reverberations beyond NASA. The Air Transport Association, the principal airline industry lobbying group, issued a statement promising a review on its policy on take offs and landings. A spokesman for the group noted, “Right now, everything’s up for grabs, but I promise that we’re going to look at this from the standpoint of whether it is justifiable to abort any take-offs at all.”

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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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