Wonder Woman under Deep Cover

Here is a story from Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman:

The November 1935 issue of Family Circle featured an article called “Lie Detector,” by Olive Richard. For this piece Mrs. Richard, a widowed mother of two, sought out a noted psychologist, Dr. William Marston, for advice on a friend’s son who was an inveterate liar. Having written to Dr. Marston, the inventor of a lie-detecting apparatus, she boarded a train and went to see him at “”his large, rambling house,” finding him on the lawn playing with four children and two cats. This “enormous” jovial man hardly fits her image of an dignified scholar. Charmed, she finds him “the kind of person to whom you confide things about yourself you scarcely realize.”

He shows Mrs. Richard his Lie Detector machine, which measures heart rate and blood pressure. She is skeptical: “I couldn’t feel the slightest change in my heartbeat if I were to tell you that my mother’s name is Grace instead of Ethel.” When he hooks her up to the machine, she decides to throw him a curveball by mixing truths and falsehoods.

It turns out that Olive Richard has done a bit of that in her article too. For starters, her name is not Olive Richard but Olive Byrne; the late Mr. Richard was a fiction concocted for the sake of her two (non-fictional) children. Her mother’s name really was Ethel—she was Ethel Byrne, a radical feminist who had made national headlines with a prison hunger strike. Ethel’s sister, Margaret Sanger, was a famous advocate for birth control. One suspects that these connections had not been shared with the folks at Family Circle.

It’s true that she was charmed by Dr. Marston, so much so that she was the mother of two of those children playing in the yard. However, her surprise at his appearance was a fib, since she had been living with him for nine years. They shared the house with Marston’s wife, who was of course the mother of the other two kids and who supported the family with her job as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sometimes another of Marston’s women also lived there, in the attic; Lepore introduces her as “Marjorie Wilkes, who believed in both suffrage and bondage…” Yep, we got your Family Circle right here.

Olive also didn’t really need a demonstration of the Lie Detector, since she was usually the one who operated it when they performed their experiments. Sometimes he called it the Love Detector, as at a publicity stunt where he hooked up six chorus girls and showed  them the climax of a movie called (IIRC) The Devil and the Flesh, proving that brunettes are more easily aroused than blondes.

In case you’re wondering why this story is in a book called _The Secret History of Wonder Woman_, it’s because Marston was the creator of WW and Olive and Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway the primary models for her character.

Lepore’s book is full of crazy stuff like this. I haven’t even gotten into the creation of Wonder Woman and its kinky intertwinings wit the life of the Marston/Hollowy/Byrne household (I will just note that Byrne wore on her wrists something very like WW’s Bracelets of Submission, and that Marson’s nickname for her was Docile). Every chapter seems to have some unexpected bizarre connection or cameo, suitable for dinner-table entertainment. I should admit, though, that I’ve been reading the book for weeks, and am still only halfway through it; somehow, all these fascinating tidbits don’t add up to a story that I’m lured to pursue.

One other item of note: the audio book is read by the author, who does an excellent job, as long as you are not bothered by the fact that, when Lepore is quoting, she sometimes goes into an awesome imitation of the voice of Rocky the Squirrel.

[Update: I did end up whipping through the second half of the book at a much faster pace.  Though there is a staccato, digressive quality to Lepore’s story-telling, I will miss these characters, especially the enigmatic Olive, whose life was so shadowed by concealment.  I will miss Lepore’s narrating voice too–it grows on one, and the Rocky outbursts become less frequent.]


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Body of Reference: A Thought-Experiment

As reference-body let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside who is equipped with apparatus. Gravitation naturally does not exist for this observer.

–Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory

Note that the observer O is inside the little room (surely even a spacious chest will start to feel small if one is trapped inside it in outer space). In other thought-experiments, the observer stands at a distance as spaceships rocket past, or sits outside watching a box in which a cat C may be alive or dead. Perhaps, indeed, the cat is imaginary (C = ki), which case it can be squared to produce a result C2 = -k2 , that is real but negative, as many cats are.

Here, by contrast, O is inside the box. He might, without loss of generality, be blind.


To the middle of the lid of the chest is fixed externally a hook with rope attached, and now a “being” (what kind of a being is immaterial to us) begins pulling at this with a constant force. The chest together with the observer then begin to move “upwards” with a uniformly accelerated motion.


O must have great mental discipline to consider it immaterial what kind of being B is pulling his little world at a constant rate of acceleration, not to wonder if it was also B who created the spacious chest or if it was B who made him blind, and why. Einstein himself had strong opinions about the nature of the being, which we may call BE, responsible for creating and controlling his own frame of reference: BE , he claimed, was subtle but not malicious, and definitely did not play with dice.


But how does the man in the chest regard the process? The acceleration of the chest will be transmitted to him by the reaction of the floor of the chest. He must therefore take up this pressure by means of his legs if he does not wish to be laid out full length on the floor.


In those days some universities had automatic wine-dispensing machines. One day at Goettingen a mathematics student M was using the machine when it malfunctioned and the wine failed to stop flowing. Those who found M laid out full-length on the floor asked him “Vielleicht ist etwas los?” (“Perhaps something is wrong?”), to which he replied, “Vielleicht nicht.”


If he releases a body which he previously had in his hand, the acceleration of the chest will no longer be transmitted to this body, and for this reason the body will approach the floor of the chest with an accelerated relative motion. The observer will further convince himself that the acceleration of the body towards the floor of the chest is always of the same magnitude, …


Even without elaborate apparatus, even if he cannot see, O may convince himself, by dropping objects on his feet, that they are subject to the same acceleration a, arriving with the same velocity v = (2ax)1/2, where x is the distance from hand to foot. If he has objects of varying mass in his pocket, say a groschen coin, a watch, and a bowling ball, then O will easily register the proportionally varying force with which they strike the foot F.

Given these experiences, O will naturally conclude that he is in a gravitational field; he will interpret that taut rope as a sign, not that his space-closet is being pulled to astronomical speeds, but that it is held suspended and motionless by the rope, kept from falling toward whatever is creating the gravity. The kernel of general relativity is the realization that O is not wrong; from this equivalence of gravity and acceleration follow all the weirdnesses of curved spacetime.


Ought we to smile at the man and say that he errs in his conclusion? I do not believe we ought if we wish to remain consistent; we must rather admit that his mode of grasping the situation violates neither reason nor known mechanical laws.


There is a surprising difference in feel between the two parts of relativity. Special relativity sometimes seems like a hall of mirrors: if A and B pass each other at great speed, A will think, “I am just sitting here as B whizzes by; everything is normal over here, but her spaceship is all squished and her clock is running slow.” B will think, “Everything is normal here in my stationary ship, but as A whizzes by, her spaceship is squished and her clock is running slow.” Time and velocity and length have no meaning apart from each observer’s frame of reference.

In general relativity, of course, O cannot tell a gravitational field from a rope-tow, but there is a more important distinction: either you are being pulled and pushed around by some force, or you are in free fall, following the natural curve of the universe at the point where you find yourself. And you can make this distinction by consulting your gut, as you feel the lurch of acceleration in your stomach, or your feet, as the bowling ball hits them. If O takes a trip on which he is whipped around by persistent acceleration while his friend O’ stays home, then both will agree, when he returns, that O’s watch has run slower. And no cats will have been harmed.





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What’s in a suffix?

Each language, they say, is a world. But each derivational morpheme? Back in the day, the day of doublet and hose, of rapier-and-dagger men, the Spanish brand had so much swagging street cred that the English English started lending macho flair to a word by adding “ado” and making fake Spanish words like “bravado” and “desperado.”
-oon too was a token of Romance romance, though it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Doubloons would seem more at home in a pirate’s hoard than a grocer’s till, and a saloon is a deal more swashbuckling than a salon. But the first maroons were not castaways, they were runaways, escaped from the death-camps of St. Domingue (slaves in the cane fields were worked to death so quickly that they were replaced, not by the children, but by fresh captives from Africa), living rough in the highlands, turning to that old-time religion and waiting for the day of vengeance. This history lies curled like a malign fetus inside our modern language.
Dragoons were just soldiers, called dragons in French for their fire-breathing muskets, but to be dragooned is to be an unarmed civilian ordered around at gunpoint. The word at first referred to those on the wrong side of a religious fence, but it seems more and more timely in a country where the police are asymptotically approaching the military.
Eventually –oon acquired enough of an aura that we started making our own words with it. Something, perhaps the combination of manliness and filth, made it appropriate for ‘spitoon.’ And someone gave a purer sense to the racism of the tribe with ‘octaroon.’ These precedents suggest that we might do well simply to kick some dirt over this toxic morpheme and leave its grave unmarked.
Then again, maybe we have a use for –oon as long as we have the the traces and consequences of maroon and dragoon and octaroon in our culture. Maybe it could be used to lampoon the electioons in which the most important voters are corporations orthe informatioon that comes from nowhere and circulates endlessly around the internet, or the incarceratioon of junkies and the mentally ill instead of the billionaire crooks who shattered our economy. Just a thought.

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Poem: I See It Feelingly

My poem “I See It Feelingly” appears in the new issue of _Wordgathering_:


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Book Report

Here are a few interesting books I’ve read recently but didn’t get around to blogging about:

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith.
A fascinating tour of a mind plagued and sometimes crippled by anxiety. To his credit, Smith does not hide the fact that severe anxiety can drive people to act selfishly, and also make them really irritating.

Pandemonium, After Party and We’re All Perfectly Fine by Daryl Gregory.
In one of these, our heroine busts out of a mental hospital and teams up with her girlfriend to track down the maker of a drug that induces religious belief; in another, a therapist organizes group therapy for victims of demonic visitation. In the other other one, our hero investigates demonic possession by what appear to be characters from children’s stories, with the help of an alternate-reality version of Sinead O’Connor.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
A fragmentary spaceship-mind occupies a zombie body and plots to assassinate the many clones of the dictator who created her. Kind of a standard sci-fi plot these days, but fun.

Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty.
Lots of awesome historical stuff—did you know that the standard considered minimally acceptable by Jane Austen characters (500 to 1000 pounds a year) placed them in the top 0.5%? That in 1900, 10% of all income in Britain consisted of clipping coupons from overseas investments? Of course Piketty’s main point is that the relative egalitarianism of the postwar period may just have been an aberration and that we seem to be heading back to a society dominated by inherited wealth.
Sadly, when he gets political, he gets cranky and annoying. He maintains, astonishingly, that no-one in the old days thought that rich people had more money because they deserved it. He might want to look up ‘noble,’ ‘gentle,’ and ‘villain’ in the dictionary.

A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn.
British civil servants gone wild. Quite funny and pretty gripping, considering that you kind of know how it ends from the start.

First Peoples in a New World by David Meltzer.
Lots of cool stuff about Ice Age life in the Americas. Not a literary masterpiece, but I’m thankful to read a serious account not written by some nutjob with an axe to grind.

Biscuit Joint by David Kirby.
Musings about stuff like being offered a senior coffee and whether you say the t in Turandot.

Selected Poems by Li Po.
A great classic of Chinese literature, lots of poems about getting drunk and looking at the moon, hiking in the mountains and looking at the moon, and occasional mentions of the fact that his world was shattering into a devastating civil war.

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Why Would You Lie Bout Something Dumb Like That?

I was not expecting Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins, to contain frequent disquisitions on topics from biology. I would have been less surprised to find them if I had read his Wikipedia bio first, for it claims that his work is characterized by “scenes extrapolated from carefully-researched bizarre facts.” Here are some of the ‘facts’ in question, from the first few pages of Cowgirls:

The brain, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo,…that slimy organ to which is attributed such intricate and mysterious powers—it is the sellfsame brain that does the attributing–…


I admit that I have several qualms about this passage. TR I have not included most of the insults TR throws at the brain—does this not seem ungrateful in a man who mmakes his living selling books? Does he sell a lot of books to gastropods? I also would recommend steering clear of pretentious words like selfsame if you can’t handle basic subject-verb agreement.

But mostly what irks me is the pound and a half. Human brains, whether anatomically modern or Neanderthal, weigh upwards of 3 pounds. I have not “carefully researched” the matter, but I think we were last at the pound and a half level a couple of million years ago, somewhere in our homo habilis heyday. I understand that Robbins has some kind of grievance against the brain, but lying about its weight? Isn’t that a bit petty?

Here is TR’s take on microbiology:

One thing is certain, however: because amoebae reproduce by division, endlessly, passing everything on, yet giving up nothing, the first amoebae [sic] that ever lived is still alive. Whether four billion years old, or merely three hundred, he, she, is with us today. Where? …

There follows a long list of possible locations for this first amoeba.. Will it make things better or worse if I try to disentangle the chain of logic that led to this? My best guess is that TR is mistaking persistence of genes for persistence of the individual, that is, he confuses cloning with immortality. Even so, he must know that evolution happens…or is he a creationist? That would explain a lot. Surely his research has exposed him to the concept of mutation, if not to the fact that bacteria sometimes engage in DNA-swapping (asexual organisms have got to get their freak on somehow). So again, he must know that what he is saying isn’t true.

And finally, there is a fugue on the subject of rectal temperatures, most of which I will spare you. Here is a sample:

The normal rectal temperature of a bumblebee is calculated to be 110.8, although so far, no-one has succeeded in taking the rectal temperature of a bumblebee. That doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t be done—scientific research marches on.

I do not know whether bumblebees have rectums, but I am reasonably confident that they are cold-blooded creatures without any stable temperature in any part of their bodies. I am also confident that Tom Robbins knows this. The key to why he schooses to lie about these kinds of things is, I suppose, to be found in the last bit,–for some reason, biologists, people who like to find out stuff about plants and animals and bacteria and then tell other people what they’ve learned, irritate the hell out of Tom Robbins.

It’s true that the whole book does not consist only of these strange jokes. There is also a young woman who is a really successful hitch-hiker because she has enormous, floppy thumbs. Yes, I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be funny, and no, I don’t get it either. I was even around, sort of, when the book was published in 1976; I was just a kid, but shouldn’t I have some clue about the culture that TR is coming from? I know some once-cool writers of the period around 1970 have faded from view (remember Richard Brautigan?), but I wonder if I would find them all so vapid now…I’m scared to revisit old faves like Breakfast of Champions or The Sot-Weed Factor, in case they’ve turned to crap while I wasn’t looking.

Anyway, I’ve decided to see whether I can experience any of the joy that Robbins apparently finds in telling pointless falsehoods. Here goes:

Tom Robbins, that pound and a half of chicken-colored goo…

Tom Robbins reproduces by division, endlessly…

The normal rectal temperature of Tom Robbins is calculated to be 110.8.

Hmmm, that does feel kinda good.

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Geting away with rhyme

It takes a certain amount of guts, these days, even to submit a rhymed poem to a journal, especially if it’s not a villanelle (those seem to have been grandfathered into contemporary poetry). I, too, often find recent rhymed poems precious or silly, though it alarms me a bit when I see that a magazine has explicitly forbidden them—how do they know what might turn up when they least expect it?

Once in a while, a writer is able to hit the right tone and harness rhyme for that essential job of poetry, letting us compass and comprehend loss and, in particular, the big D—no, not Dallas, I mean Death. For me, Dan Albergotti’s “Inside” is such a poem:



(The next poem, “Wilderness,” is also very much worth reading.)


The poem moves from the concrete to the abstract, from the natural to the personal. It sets up an expectation of obvious meanings and oppositions and then plays with and distorts them; the regularity of the form, including the internal-rhyme links, helps to disguise how the poem has wandered into deeper and more twisty relationships:

In the soil, the growing seed. In the tree, the lark.

In the child, the weight of years. In the steel, the rust.

In my head, the unsaid words. In the diamond, coal.

This is at once a familiar and an unnerving trope: we are used to the notion of a jewel hiddden or potentially present in the dross, but not the other way round.

Finally, the poem turns, turning the concept of blood vessel inside out, turning from a timeless catalogue of noun phrases to the recognition, of an irretrievable past in the verb, and turning back on itself: the poem is the wake, the trace of the poet’s mother and of his grief:

In my blood, your vessel ran. In these lines, its wake.

Well, that was a good day at the poetry smithy, don’t you think? So far I have not found a way to incorporate into my own work any overt form beyond what turns up without my consciously willing it.

Reading Albergotti’s collection, Millennial Teeth, you get a strong impression of the “rapture of distress” (Auden’s phrase) that so often lends force and a feeling of authenticity to poetry. This is clearly important to his work, and yet the reader may start to wonder how many of his wounds are self-inflicted. He is deeply troubled by overt racism, militarism, and Christianity, yet he chooses to live in rural South Carolina. Obviously he didn’t choose his family; still, by middle age, many people have found ways to live with even extremely suboptimal family backgrounds. The events touched on in “Wilderness,” Albergotti’s failure to answer his mother’s phone calls or, when he did answer, to comfort her adequately, his failure to rescue his sister from the family home or from her mental illness or the brain damage she suffered as a newborn—these genuine sources of deep regret appear over and over in what strikes me as a strangely unprocessed form. a psychologist friend says that she kept wondering whether he couldn’t profit from therapy, something she doesn’t usually think about when reading poems.

Perhaps he would benefit from a dose of Frontier Psychiatry:


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