A Deep Dive Into Humanity's Progress Towards Freedom of Thought and True Liberty


A History of Freedom of Thought – J.B. Bury (1914)

            Sometimes a book magically appears to feed your mind.  This is one such book.  After absorbing the latest entry off of Sun Ra’s Reading List (The Loom of Language – Frederick Bodmer) I found this comprehensive yet succinct treatise on the history of humanity’s desire for freedom of thought, where it arose, and the many ways that our societies and governments have tolerated or crushed those seeking the right to believe and discuss what they want.  J.B. Bury’s book should be required reading in any High School history classroom.

As with many of the ideas we consider modern, the acceptance of freedom of thought and speech began in the ancient city-states that eventually coalesced into what we today call Greece.  There are several reasons why this area of the world was conducive to the exploration of ideas and the questioning of established thought.  One of the most important is that the people of Greece did not answer to an unimpeachable higher authority.  Greece did not have a “bible” that purported to be the very word of their gods.  Instead, they understood, as a culture and society, that religious thoughts and ideas are both personal and ever-changing.  The rise of Philosophy and Science (Natural Philosophy) in Greece resulted from this openness to ideas.  As the Greeks did not have to force their views and experiences to match what some holy book said, they were free to explore both the internal nature of humanity and the external natural world around them.  This freedom came at a price, for while the powerful in Greece did not punish blasphemy or heresy, they did punish anyone who they felt was “corrupting” the minds of others, especially young people.  Instead of punishing someone for blasphemy, they instead punished him or her for impiety (meaning they were rude to the religious thoughts that the State considered correct).  In this manner they railroaded Socrates.  Socrates crime was that he asked too many questions, not only about religion, but also about how religion is used by the state to enforce its own agendas.  They executed this great man for a purely bullshit crime, that of “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities.”  Pathetic.

Even through suppression, the ideals of Greece and freedom of thought continued in Rome, which sought to base its better qualities on the previous Greek civilization they so admired.  Rome was a different monster though.  The powerful in Rome were mostly irreligious but they would display outward signs of piety in order to rise in their respective fields.  They saw religion as mainly a means of controlling the subordinate population, who they believed too dumb to be good, moral people without the guidance of religion and priests.  Because of this, they allowed free speech and free thought, as long as it did not impede with the powerful Roman’s control of their compatriots.  The moment anyone sought to teach the so-called ignorant masses about this, they were suppressed.  A great example of this is the rise of the Christian church.

People forget that, for the first hundred or so years, the Jewish sect called Christianity was strictly an apocalyptic cult. They saw the world as ending imminently and that Jesus would be back to whup that sinner ass.  While there were many such end-times cults around the Roman Empire, the reason the Christian cult was perceived as a threat was that they were the first to proselytize widely.  While the Hebrew religion also taught that there was one god, and that other gods were false, they did not seek to spread their religion.  Hebrews were born to other Hebrews.  They did not seek to convert anyone.  This reduced the level of threat felt by the Romans, as they knew they could out-breed anyone.  However, the Christian sect that spawned off Judaism actively sought converts of all types, both Jewish and gentile.  (This is one of the reasons that Jesus was killed by the tag-team of Roman government and rabbinical leadership.  Romans did not like that Jesus preached ending subservience to the state, and the rabbis did not appreciate that Jesus taught non-Jews what was seen as purely Jewish wisdom.  Neither liked that Jesus preached that loyalty to state and family and established religion was a sin if it came between one’s loyalties to god.- RXTT)

So, Jesus was executed.  For the next few hundred years there was very little persecution of Christians, until a Roman emperor sought to make an example of them as he tried to force the old Roman religion down everyone’s throats as the officially sanctioned state religion.  Just a century later, a Roman emperor proclaimed himself a Christian, ending the persecutions, but beginning the rise of state-sanctioned Christianity, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  In what seems ironic, but is merely stupid, the very same Christianity became the state’s tool by which to control the populace, and bring to an almost complete halt the advancement of freethought, science, and philosophy.  For hundreds and hundreds of years, much of Europe became a stagnant, ignorant cesspool of political/religious tyranny.  Any idea or thought that seemed to contradict the supposedly correct and inviolable contents of the Bible was suppressed in the most violent manner.  Christian states and the Roman Catholic Church murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people in the name of their religion.  The Holy Inquisition, which took place throughout Europe, even though we are taught it was a Spanish thing, brought the most gruesome and sadistic terror that the world had yet to see.  Not only were non-believers targeted but anyone who espoused Christian beliefs different from what Rome proclaimed as true was at risk.  Whole populations of people were exterminated because the local leaders had different views on the “truths” forced upon them by the Roman Catholic Church.  It was genocide on a continental level.

Luckily the Greek ideals of freethought and philosophy were kept alive in the Ottoman empire.  The modern world owes so much to the Muslims that preserved the Greek writers and continued to advance the sciences of Astronomy, Mathematics, and Philosophy.  It was their translations that made their way into Europe in the mid 1400’s and sparked up the rebirth of rationalism and enlightenment we now call the Renaissance.  The inevitable breakup of monolithic Catholicism during the Reformation helped a bit, but mainly just ushered a new era where Protestant Christians murdered and brutalized Catholic Christians, just as they had been brutalized initially.  Shit don’t change.  It stays shit.  People were now executed for being Papists.  When a Catholic took over a country, like what happened in England under Bloody Mary, the persecutions and murder of Protestants began again.

            J.B. Bury wrote this small book in the first decade of the 20th century, ahead of the rise of fascist totalitarian states in Europe.  These states, such as Germany, had initially provided so many of the eminent thinkers that espoused freethought, and the Liberty which is to be gained by all of us for allowing all people the right to think and voice their opinions without threat of blasphemy or sedition.  J.B. Bury warned that, although Enlightenment ideals and rational thought had become the norm in Europe in the late 1800’s, it was a tentative victory, for tyrants and idiots everywhere will always seek to shut down voices and ideas they feel are detrimental to their own personal and political agendas.  I wonder how Mr. Bury, who passed away in 1927, would have reacted to the rise of totalitarian states in Germany, Spain, Italy, Romania, etc.  I believe his heart would have broken to see humanity take such a step backwards, and to see the horrors wrought by these fascist assholes upon the world.

Nothing enrages me as much as willful ignorance.  The worst type of willful ignorance is when freedom of speech is denied in order to protect a state-sanctioned religion, for this affects everyone.  For your “beliefs” to be so fragile that you must suppress opposing views shows how truly baseless your “beliefs” are.  It also shows exactly why those “beliefs” exist, namely, for use in controlling or subjugating any and every person who chooses to believe otherwise.  This is the way of the world.  It is plain to see for anyone who chooses to study history and the rise and fall of states, religious beliefs, and state-sanctioned religions.  Anyone seeking to assert the human right of Freethought is an enemy to tyrannical states. (A minor example- this very book review blog was blocked in China about 3 months into its existence.  China does not like giving their citizens freedom to read what they want - RXTT) 

I feel this book is even more valuable today as state-sanctioned totalitarianism and tyranny are on the rise in supposedly progressive and freedom-loving nations such as the UK and the USA.  Instead of a secular government set up to protect and nourish its citizenry, allowing them to choose whatever religion they feel is right for them, or no religion if they so choose, we are sliding into quasi-religious government inflicting their personal beliefs on the entire population, regardless of personal choice.  The only way to fight this is with education, which is why the ignorant tyrants seek to control state school boards all over the United States.  When beliefs instead of facts direct the path of government, we end up eroding Liberty at its core. This is the main reason freedom of thought, and everything that comes with it, is the most important human right.

(This book can be read/downloaded for free: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10684 )


What are Words for when no one listens anymore?


The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages – Frederick Bodmer (1914)

SUN RA Reading List


            The great Sun Ra has yet to let me down.  Previously, I ran across an article listing some of Sun Ra’s favorite books, or at least books that he felt were important to read.  The first two I read were amazing.  The first, Alexander Hislop’s TheTwo Babylons, explored the ways in which organized Christianity (the Catholic church specifically) merely redressed Babylonian “pagan” religion into a new outfit, presenting it as new and couching it in the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth. The second book I read from Sun Ra’s list was P.D. Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe: Principles ofthe Psychological Method in its Application to Problems of Science, Religion,and Art.  This book was even denser than the previous, as Mr. Ouspensky explored the ways in which humanity has sought to understand, and disseminate, what many see as eternal wisdoms, using modern science and psychology to dissect the paths to wisdom offered by churches, esoteric mystics, and occult organizations throughout human history.

            In many ways, this current book, The Loom of Language, is equally as broad, for it seeks to not only describe the evolution of written and spoken Language, but it also hopes to educate the reader in how best to learn foreign languages. As a bi-lingual person (Spanish / English) I know the amazing benefits of speaking/reading/writing more than one language.  Mr. Bodmer, writing in the early 1900’s, also saw this benefit.  In this attempt to create a new method of language instruction, he saw international communication as the driving force for learning new languages. Ahead of the horrors of totalitarian Europe in the 30’s and 40’s Bodmer saw the correlation between a populace that does not expose itself to its neighbors or their language, and the slide into jingoism and deluded nationalism. This is what is happening in the USA currently, where anyone speaking Spanish, a language spoken in 90% of all New World countries, is assumed by ignorant people to be a criminal, “illegal alien” or poor and uneducated.  This leads to the worst kinds of overt racism.  It is even worse for the many Americans who hail from nations other than Latin America.

            Too many people see Language as a static creation, when in fact it is an ever-evolving set of ideas.  Mr. Bodmer discusses the difference between a written language and a spoken language and how this affects how language is passed on to succeeding generations.  For example, in the Roman Empire there existed at the least two separate Latin languages.  One was the formal, codified, rigid Latin of the ruling class, religion, and the highly educated.  The other was an informal, spoken Latin, used by the masses in their day-to-day lives.  It was this informal spoken Latin that slowly morphed through time and distance into what are called the Romance Languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian).  Meanwhile, the Church, education, science, utilized the rigid formal Latin and politics for centuries after Rome fell.  In many parts of Europe, until the late 1800’s, university education was conducted in Latin.  Today many Roman Catholic Church services still hold Mass in Latin. (Funny aside, no one really knows how to pronounce anything in Latin, as it has been a dead language for centuries.  Even so, priests continue to vocalize what they feel is Latin-sounding pronunciations of their Mass.)

            Mr. Bodmer not only does an amazing job of describing how languages morph and evolve, he constantly provides examples and word lists to detail how linguists came to know what they know, how they connected languages that seem disparate but come from common sources, and how they are able to explore seemingly dead languages by comparison to living ones.  This is just the beginning, for the bulk of the book deals with learning the actual languages, or at least learning the tools by which a reader can begin to explore new languages.  Long chapters provide detail on the grammar of Anglo-American English.  English as we know it today is very far removed from its Teutonic roots, having absorbed words and phrases from so many languages.  French, Spanish, and Greek are among the many languages that have found their place in the English vocabulary. 

Bodmer details the many prefixes and suffixes found in English describing which ones are from what root tongue.  This mish-mash of language makes English a bit complex, as words that sound the same in the ear may mean completely different things, based on the source language.  For example, the Latin phrase “ante” means “before,” as in the words anteroom, antecedent, etc.  The Greek phrase “anti,” pronounced exactly as the Latin “ante,” means “against/not,” as in the words antipodes, antifascist, antagonist, etc.  While this makes English a tough language for a non-speaker to master, it allows an English speaker to understand foreign words much more quickly.  This may be why English has spread throughout the world as the unofficial language of international business.

The evolution of Teutonic and Romance languages is thoroughly explored.  At all turns Mr. Bodmer reiterates the need for an international language, capable of fostering communications between the people of the world.  This was his lofty goal.  It is scary to think that, just a few years later the horrors of totalitarianism, nationalism, and bigotry would turn much of the world into a war zone.  It would probably make Mr. Bodmer sick to know that, decades after surviving the cataclysm, our “leaders” continue to push our nations into authoritarian, jingoistic, nationalistic fervors.  “Us” versus “Them” is a pointless exercise, meant only to divide the people while those in power maintain their death grip on us.  Just like all human beings, all human languages, when traced back, come from the same place.  We are all together in this world, and languages add to that beauty.  It is upon each of us to try to learn more than one language, and by extension, to understand each other better.  I can see why a visionary like Sun Ra would recommend this book.  Anyone seeking to learn new languages would be well-off reading this.  We must continue to fight the good fight against willfully proud ignorance and intellectual blindness.

(This book can be read/downloaded here: https://s3.amazonaws.com/arena-attachments/255464/07f8d71c7c840bec709cf5a38e7da300.pdf )


Over 100 years ago, Dr. Otto Rank explored the commonalities found in the world's Hero myths


The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology – Dr. Otto Rank (1914)

            When looking at the list of books I have read and reviewed here on the Intellectual Journey, I find that many of them deal with the topics of Myth and the influence of these myths on human culture through the ages.  This is a topic that has always fascinated me, but which requires extensive background reading.  Comparative Religion studies is a relatively new area of research, having only truly begun in the last 150 years or so.  Before then, the idea of studying religions and myths to see the similarities and common sources for both was heretical, and all people who sought to study this field were dissuaded from it by the church on penalty of blasphemy.  (This makes me wonder how many amazing works of world literature, history and myth sit locked away in the Vatican archives, solely to keep the knowledge from disturbing their very elaborate and lucrative pyramid scheme.)

            In 1914, Otto Rank published a monograph where he explored the specific sources and intent of the Hero myth common to all cultures.  Specifically, Dr. Rank focuses on the parts of the Hero myths that detail the Hero’s birth.  From Sargon and Oedipus to Hercules and Jesus, Dr. Rank details their specific birth myths, working from the most ancient antiquity forwards.  In his introduction, Dr. Rank describes how “prominent civilized nations…all began at an early age to glorify their heroes, mythical princes and kings, founders of religions, dynasties, empires or cities…in a number of poetic tales and legends.”  Initially based on actual events, these stories were embellished and invested with fantastic features as they were passed on from generation to generation.  What struck Dr. Rank, and many others who study such things, is the improbable similarities that arose in each of these Hero’s birth stories.  It is these similarities, analyzed with a psychological view in mind, which Otto Rank explores in this monograph.

            Dr. Otto Rank details the three separate theories that researchers of his time offered to explain why there are so many similarities in the various civilization’s Hero birth myths.  One was the theory that there exists elementary thoughts, universally sourced from our human brain, which manifest themselves as details of our Hero myths.  A second was that of original community, meaning that one ancient civilization first created the details that have become universal, purely through the influence of the civilizations that arose from the initial one.  The third explanation offered, migration, expands on the second one, stating that an original civilization created the myths, and then when they expanded their territory, their myths were adopted by the people with whom they came into close contact.  Dr. Rank disagrees with these theories.  Using psychology, specifically the work of Dr.’s Freud and Jung, he proposes that the source of these myths lays in the human mind and it’s psychological constructs, specifically those that relate to our own birth and the processes of growth into adulthood.  As we are all humans with human psychology, it makes sense that our myths would seem to be of a similar character with similar details.

            It is not possible to go into everything that Dr. Rank discusses, but one detail in particular stands out.  In most of the classic Hero myths, the birth of the hero is followed by the abandonment/exposure of the baby hero in order that it may die, so as not to fulfil prophecy.  Invariably, the hero is placed in a container, which is then put into a river or body of water.  Fortunately, the child is rescued by someone who then raises him or her to adulthood.  Dr. Rank provides ample evidence that these various water stories are actually mythological descriptions of the Hero’s birth.  This is especially evident in the fact that in most of these myths the Hero is born of royalty or a god, and then after being ditched, is raised by simple folk such as shepherds, wet-nurses, slaves, etc.  The second birth helps separate the Hero from his true family and his true societal obligations.  This is necessary as it allows the Hero to seek the Hero’s path, eventually to usurp or replace his original royal parent.

            The creation of myths by humanity is an on-going process.  One of the founding heroes of the United States is the first President, George Washington, who as a General led the forces that defeated the British in the New World.  It has been almost 250 years since that time.  Already, a vast catalogue of fabrications exists that seek to portray President Washington in the heroic light that myth does.  The biggest one is the story where Washington cut down a tree, and when confronted about it, told his parents “I cannot tell a lie.”  This small, apocryphal story has gone on to become the basis of most everyone’s idea about George Washington.  It remains to be seen whether his myth tale will continue to grow.   I think Dr. Otto Rank may be correct in stating that the sources of Myth lie in our very own subconscious minds.  The stories that move us as human have not really changed since the dawn of history.  We all love a Hero.  We all love a story about someone who was taken from lofty heights, brought down to the lowliest of lows, and then re-emerges, like the Phoenix, to greater glory that ever before.  It is truly our human nature.

(This book can be read or downloaded here:  https://ia802205.us.archive.org/12/items/mythofbirthofher1914rank/mythofbirthofher1914rank_bw.pdf )


Alan Moore Took Swamp Thing Where It Needed To Go


Swamp Thing: Issues #21-64 – Alan Moore, writer (1982-1987)

            In my youth, I was always on the hunt for new and interesting comic books.  I was very fortunate, as the 1980’s were a great time for innovative storytelling and many comic book creators took the art form to new heights of intensity, storytelling, and beauty.  One of the premier writers in comic books at the time was Alan Moore.  His epic story, The Watchmen, is one of my all-time favorites.  An early work that Alan Moore devoted years to in the 1980’s was the comic book Swamp Thing.  After decades, I was finally able to sit and absorb the full run of Alan Moore penned Swamp Thing stories.  They were even better than I expected.

            Swamp Thing has always been a “horror” comic book.  It sprung forth as a monster feature, and was not too popular with readers.  Headed for cancellation, Alan Moore was brought in to breathe new life into the book, and he did so full bore!  Alan Moore retconned the origin story of Swamp Thing.  Originally, Swamp Thing was a man who, after being doused with experimental fertilizer of some sort, found his way to a nearby swamp where he was turned into the Swamp Thing.  Alan Moore changed that up.  Instead of a man becoming Swamp Thing, an earth elemental spirit took on the human shape of the scientist.  Swamp Thing is tasked with protecting the Green, which is in fact, all plant life on the planet.  The horror comes in the many ways humans treat nature and the revenge that Swamp Thing enacts in the name of The Green.

            Alan Moore never shied away from showing the ugly, evil sides of human nature in his work.  With Swamp Thing he was able to explore ideas and topics that in other mainstream or superhero comics of the time would have been taboo.  Alan Moore shows us true evil, true monsters who look human and nice and normal, but who are ugly and sick inside, as opposed to the Swamp Thing, who is a monstrosity that has a hero’s soul inside.  Seeing as how good “spirits” like Swamp Thing exist in this comic book world, it is evident that a lot of evil would exist for Swamp Thing to fight.

            The horrors and monsters that Swamp Thing battles are just one aspect of the comic book.  Just as important is the internal life of Swamp Thing.  Alan Moore’s genius lies in exploring the true self of his characters.  Swamp Thing is conflicted.  He falls in love.  He feels deep sorrow and pain at the way humans treat Mother Nature.  He seeks to understand his place in the cosmos and why he’s tasked with protecting the Green.  The humans and monsters he fights are the opposite, seeking to either destroy nature or to corral it and wield it like a weapon.  I can see why many superhero comic fans did not appreciate this series.  It is too complex and disturbing for someone that just wishes to see didactic good and evil fighting.  What was more surprising to me was how sad, how deeply mournful Swamp Thing is as a book.  Alan Moore’s fears for what the modern world has done to our Mother Nature are evident.

            While much of the Swamp Thing saga is grim and monumental, Alan Moore also finds joy and humor in Swamp Thing and his life.  One of the most interesting issues is a one-off that explores what happens when a tiny ship filled with cute alien beings lands in the Swamp.  They have travelled for centuries seeking a new, lush, green home after their home was destroyed.  Told in a light-hearted and humorous manner, this story nevertheless becomes one of deep sadness and pathos as the small aliens discover the damage that humans have done to the Earth, and decide to leave in search of another home, one that will not soon be damaged irreparably by its inhabitants.  Heavy stuff for a “comic book.”

            I must mention the artwork of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.  For a horror comic book, the artwork must not only be appropriately scary, but it should lend a specific visual language to the book.  The naturalistic drawing and minimal inking of the artwork used in these comics speak to the content within.  It is a perfect match.  The visuals of Swamp Thing are some of the best of the era, able to portray not only the physical battles that Swamp Thing engages in, but also the psychic and ethereal battles fought on the Astral Plane.  Comic Books are, when done right, a perfect combination of story, words, and images.  This is one of those successes.

            I highly recommend finding and reading the run of Swamp Thing issues that Alan Moore wrote.  If you are already a fan of his, you will get to experience his early work.  If you are not yet a fan of Alan Moore then this is a good place to start as nearly all of the work he has produced since the 80’s contains many of the elements he first explored in Swamp Thing.  From explorations on the metaphysical and mythic nature of existence, to the re-introduction of nearly-forgotten characters from the history of comic books and much more, Swamp Thing is definitely an early Alan Moore triumph.


A Second Trip to Mars from Damien Larkin


Blood Red Sand – Damien Larkin (2021)


            In 2019 I was introduced to a young science fiction writer named Damien Larkin after his publisher sent me a review copy of his debut novel Big Red.  Once I read the book and wrote up a review, I wondered when Mr. Larkin would transport me once again back to Mars to catch up on the doings of the Mars Expeditionary Force.  Upon receiving a shipment from the good people at Dancing Lemur Press I knew that time had come.  Inside was a review copy of Damien Larkin’s second novel Blood Red Sand for me to enjoy.

            The world of science fiction is as wide and varied as any other “genre.”  Blood Red Sand like Big Red, is a work of militaristic, alternate-history science-fiction, akin to Heinlein or other well-known sci-fi giants. Every author brings something of themselves to the stories they tell and it is evident while reading Blood Red Sand that Mr. Larkin not only experienced combat, but he understood the true feelings and horrors experienced by soldiers of all types, in all times.  The way he captures this on the page is thrilling and repulsive at the same time.  Mr. Larkin does not ever aggrandize combat or the military for their own sake.  Instead, they are the vehicle for the very large story he is telling.

            As with other novels, I do not wish to give away plot points, or anything that may take away from a reader’s enjoyment of Damien Larkin’s books.  I refuse to provide a synopsis.  Good science fiction needs an air of mystery going in, to let the mind be blown as it experiences the story.  What I can say is that this novel follows the events of Big Red at the same time that it precedes them.  Is that confusing?  Welcome to science fiction!

            One of my favorite writing devices that Damien Larkin utilizes is the way he separates the various “scenes” and chapters.  As we go back and forth between our protagonists and antagonists we see what they think, how they act, and why they feel they are in the right.  This is something that applies to nearly all wars, the idea that both sides are adamant they fight for the “true cause.”  Our heroes, regular men placed in extraordinary circumstances, understand that all that matters is one’s survival and that of your fellow soldiers.  Too often I have read fiction works that portray the military men and women as mindless, as robots trained to kill, not feeling the effects of what they do and what happens around them.  Much science fiction focuses on the bigger picture, not the individual story.  Damien Larkin knows the truth.  He shows those of us who have fortunately never been in combat what it is really like, including the worries, doubts, fears, and most of all the chaos.  There were times when I would read 10-15 pages in a frenzy!  It is an exhilarating read.

The filmmaker Truffaut supposedly once said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film.”  He meant that any film about a war, even one vehemently against war, inevitably will aggrandize and glorify combat, soldiers, and their camaraderie, even as it tries to decry war itself.  Some may say this applies to books as well.  I think Damien Larkin has succeeded in telling a militaristic tale without forgetting the trauma and horror caused by wars and battles, especially to the innocent people on the sidelines.  I look forward to more stories about Mars and to whatever else Mr. Larkin puts his mind to write!

(This novel is available for purchase here: AMAZON )


Joan Didion captures the rage felt by those who mourn


Blue Nights – Joan Didion (2011)

            About two and a half years ago, thanks to the repeated insistence of my beautiful wife Elizabeth, I absorbed Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she explored the state of her mind reeling from the sudden passing of her husband.  It was as honest and profound an examination of the experience of Loss as I have ever come across.  About seven months after I completed that book, my own mother passed away, over a quarter century after my father left us.  She never stopped mourning my father’s death in her heart, and she remained devoted to him through all things. 

The loss of a partner, which both Joan Didion and my mother experienced, is more of a shock than the loss of one’s parent.  We are supposed to outlive our mom and dad, but our life-partner is supposed to be there with us forever.  The idea of losing a child? Incomprehensible to most parents.  My mother’s mom saw three of her children pass away before her.  Joan Didion lost her adopted daughter soon after losing her husband.  While “The Year of Magical Thinking” details the loss of mental focus and the intensity of memory and grief, “Blue Nights” rages at the loss of her daughter.  My mother once said the worst thing in the world is for a parent to lose a child.  Her own mother, herself a widow, told her this.  I cannot imagine a more true statement.

This is not a grief-stricken book.  It is an anger-filled self-examination.  Joan Didion may be a petite, refined woman, but her heart and mind are of a different type.  She uses her mind as if her life depended on unflinching honesty and truth, which is similar to the many of us who live in mourning or grief every day.  She asks herself questions which, I would imagine, almost all mothers ask themselves but which most mothers would never admit publicly.  Joan does not always have answers.  That is a truth of life.  We all have more questions than we can answer.

Early on in the book, Ms. Didion describes the process by which her and her husband adopted their daughter Quintana.  To them, it was magic.  After communicating their desire to adopt to friends and family, they received a phone call from a Doctor acquaintance stating that there was a beautiful baby girl needing a home.  Joan describes the joy they felt answering the call, shouting in glee, heading over to the hospital to meet their new daughter, waiting to take her home, and then, 6 months later, officially adopting her.  Joan then tells of how this dream of a story was taken by their adoptive daughter. She would ask her parents to please retell the story, the wonderful story of her adoption.  However, for Quintana, this story brought forth questions her mom found unsettling in hindsight.  Quintana would listen to the story.  She would then ask her parents questions such as, “What if you had not been home when the Doctor called?”, “What if you had a car accident on the way to the Hospital?”, or “What if you had seen me and not loved me?”  These questions, which can break a parent’s heart, shed light on an issue many adoptive children have, which can be framed thus, “If my birth parents abandoned me, then how do I know my adoptive parents will not do the same?”  Brutal.  Some questions and ideas are too much for a young developing mind.

As she writes, Joan Didion examines what she felt were the blind spots in her caring for her daughter, for all parents of sick children ask themselves such questions.  What did I miss?  What was my child trying to tell me?  Did my actions make her life worse?  Was she happy?  For Joan Didion, these are not easy questions to ask nor answer.  Quintana had many health issues in life, but she was a strong soul, eventually marrying the love of her life.  The anger Joan Didion feels, which is reflected in her writing, is the rage all those of us who experience profound loss and feel helpless inside.   

People assume grief is about sadness.  It can equally be about rage.  Pure, unadulterated rage at the world, its inhabitants, its rules, and whoever the hell created it all.  Joan mentioned a comment directed at her by caring friends and family in the weeks following her daughter’s death.  “At least you have your memories.”  It sounds nice enough, but only someone who has never experienced true loss and grief would imagine it to be so.  I, like Joan, know the actual truth.  The memories are what HURTS.  The memories are what bring back the loss and the pain and the sorrow like it was yesterday, for in our minds and hearts, it was just yesterday.  The memories are what stops you from living your day-to-day life.  It can be something as inconsequential as a whiff of perfume, or the sight of a specific flower, or running across an item loved by those you lost.  Joan describes this and it is just so very true.  There are no “happy” memories.  There are just memories, reminders that someone who once existed, and who once meant everything to you, is now gone, and we are left behind to pick up the pieces and move on. 

Joan details how, having lost her husband and daughter, her deepest remaining fear is not the end of her own life, but the knowledge that when she dies her memories of Quintana will die with her.  As she states at the end of this book, “The fear is for what is still to be lost / you may see nothing still to be lost / yet, there is no day in her life in which I do not see her.” Some say that we are not truly dead until the last person that remembers us has passed.  Joan Didion understands that burden completely.

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.thejoandidion.com/blue-nights )