The Strange Dread of Being Alone with Your Thoughts

In 2014, an audacious psychology student named Erin Westgate carried out a bold test of Pascal’s famous crack about humanity’s problems stemming from the inability to sit quiet and alone in a room. Westgate took away all technology from her participants and placed them in a lab. There would be no Candy Crush to distract these guinea pigs on their confiscated smartphones. Run the Jewels 2 or some other album of the moment would never bellow through their surrendered earbuds. The participants were even divested of their watches.

There was a button adjacent to each of these human lab rats. Pressing the button would deliver an electric shock. Westgate asked the gathered crowd if they could test it out. They did so and the shock was unpleasant. Then Westgate asked the group if they would lay down some dollars to avoid the painful tingle from the button. They said that they would. There are no details about the price that the participants were willing to pay or whether or not Westgate accepted credit cards.

But the next stage of Westgate’s experiment is where it gets fascinating. The subjects had a small window of time — about twelve minutes — to sit in their chairs and not nod off for a nap. They simply needed to be alone with their thoughts. This was all they had to do. But if they wanted to press the button and shock themselves, they had this option as well. Twelve minutes isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things. There are people who would stand in line for lunch in that time. (The average wait time at Umami Burger is 55 minutes.) We probably fritter away at least twelve minutes doing something stupid on any given day. But when there were merely thoughts, those twelve minutes turned into torture for a sizable cluster of the subjects. An astonishing 70 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women were so nullified by the idea of wandering with their minds that they couldn’t make it twelve minutes without hitting themselves with a startling jolt which they had already confessed that they would pay good money to avoid. Being shocked (and arguably waiting much longer than this for a shittake burger in a trendy Battery Park lunch joint) was preferable to finding pleasure and possibility within these thoughts.

If the human mind has been given to us to take in wonder and imagine happy scenarios, why then is there this masochistic impulse to shut down the mighty noggin in its prime? We are happy to spill our thoughts to others with endless tweets and texts, but the beats inside our heads are not such a sexy dance for some, especially men, who are also sparse in numbers if you ever take a swing dancing class, which is itself a kind of meditation. Perhaps this is because being alone sometimes requires us to face our fears and anxieties, which might otherwise be obliterated with relentless stimuli. Or maybe there is some quality increasingly steeped in our culture that requires us to share rather than withhold.

Thoughts are a cornerstone of meditation. And it’s worth observing that a Brown University study earlier this year revealed that, much like the women in the above University of Virginia study, women were far more likely to overcome a downcast mood in a mindfulness meditation session than men were. It may very well be possible, although one winces at the stereotypes that the two studies appear to uphold, that women are better equipped than men to find pleasure and compassion and positivism within their minds. Perhaps women are less likely to feel the dread of being alone with their thoughts because the patriarchal cues of Western culture (mansplaining, the disproportionate number of times that men interrupt women, the swinish Uber board member who declared that women talk too much in a meeting about sexism, et al.) sometimes present them with limited options. Or maybe society itself is already administering a shock with subtle crimes pertaining to gender disparity and the mind is thus a more welcome refuge.

On Sworn Virgins and Albanian Tradition

by Elvira Dones
Translated by Clarissa Botsford
& Other Stories, 256 pages

He will wear a hat with a tight fit and he will smoke and drink with formidable camaraderie. As zot shtëpie (“head of household”), his devotion to besa, the Albanian word of honor, is so strong that he will fight a bloodfeud to the bitter end. But his commitment to hospitality is just as fierce. He has been known to walk a stranger to the edge of town, ensuring a safe journey. And he may be a “sworn virgin” — a former woman who becomes the male household head in exchange for a vow of chastity, dressing as a man to earn the respect granted to a man, no different from any other zot working in the mountains.

Sworn virgins, who are found mostly in northern Albania, act and carry on as men, but do not undergo any surgical change. In 2000, it was estimated that there were 100 sworn virgins left in Albania. (Stana Cerovic, pictured above, is believed to be the last sworn virgin in Montenegro.) Antonia Young’s incredibly helpful book on the subject, Women Who Become Men, reveals that the vajzë e betuar is often raised to lead a family, with the choice to become patriarch made sometime after puberty. Western fiction readers may know of the custom from Alice Munro’s story, “The Albanian Virgin,” published in the June 27, 1994 issue of The New Yorker. But while the sworn virgin comes with some cultural relativism, especially when considering the subservient role of women in rural Albania, the underlying rites are quite complicated. The bride and the groom do not meet, with flirtation considered a boorish quality for a man. The bride sheds demonstrative tears when she leaves her family home and, as a wife, a woman is expected to perform quite a bit of labor, often more than the man. Custom dictates that a family in northern Albania, which is often as large as twenty members, cannot survive without a male leader. But it is this fascinating sworn virgin loophole, presented in the Kanun, that creates a uniquely Albanian fluidity.

Elvira Dones‘s engaging novel, Sworn Virgin (translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford and regrettably the only Dones novel available in English), not only unpacks these fascinating gender questions, but transplants the issue between two nations. Dones’s protagonist Hana Doda (known as Mark back in Albania) moves to Rockville, Maryland, to land a job and begin a new life. Yet her new country’s demands present an altogether different identity crisis:

On the outside she looks almost like a woman. What’s missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world. When she observes people, Hana does not see a woman or a man. She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyzes their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that these thoughts are inextricably linked to the male or female ego. Women think like women. Men? Well, the answer is obvious. She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.

In the context of an America contending with greater and necessary LGBT acceptance, Hana’s search for “the unique spirit of the individual” is quite liberating. Would Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn feel as “conflicted” about trans models if he weren’t so committed to looking at the world with a regressive parallax view? Is it possible that an exceptional custom originating from tradition is more tolerant on this question than our purportedly democratic republic?

Dones alternates between Hana’s early years in America in 2001-2003 and her time in Albania, in which she becomes a sworn virgin (1986, 1996). We learn that the Albanian epithet malokë (“mountain yokel”) is not unlike “queer” in America: a vicious insult appropriated by its victims as a term of pride. We see that Hana’s family is committed to pretense, with her Uncle Gjergj presented as “an intelligent man but he often pretends that he’s not.” Gjergj is near death. Neither Gjergj nor Hana want to see the medication that goes down his gullet and keeps him alive. There is also the fragile health of Aunt Katrina, which proves more swift and fatal than Gjergj’s. Hana becomes torn in these early years of living life independently and fulfilling her inevitable familial obligation as a patriarch.

When Dones drops us back into Hana’s years in America, we see how swiftly Hana has changed, wondering if it will be easy for her to establish yet another new life. She must contend with shaving her legs and skirts that are too wide and operates having “no real experience of femininity,” and she must figure out the new rules of the game before her job interview. These assiduous concerns help Dones’s novel become more than a fresh spin on the immigrant novel. Is Hana working for a chain bookstore a sufficient substitute for Mark’s dutiful tasks as a shepherd keeping up a kulla (“family home”)? Which nation offers the greater conformity? What technicalities are available in America’s unmemorialized Kanun?

Dones succeeds greatly in devising a kind of Rorschach test around these demarcations. We are left with the consoling thought that no matter how traditional or boundary-breaking one’s temperament is, you can’t stop body and soul from expressing very specific desires on being alive.

BookExpo 2014: The Future of Gender Balance and Why Conversations Need to Grow Up

It became clear on Friday morning at a BookExpo America panel devoted to “Packaging, Positioning and Reviewing in the Fiction Marketplace” that all the VIDA counting and the justifiable grandstanding is getting in the way of building on heartening truths: namely, that women have gained significant (and in many cases dominant) ground as authors, as editorial tastemakers, and as reviewers in the past year.

“I met two of my counterparts,” said New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. “The books editor of the Chicago Tribune is a woman. The Los Angeles Times editor is a woman. USA Today is a woman. People is a woman. New York Magazine is a woman. There are more women book critics than there are men. So that’s kind of the good news, I think.”

Paul picked up a recent issue of the Review and shuffled through the table of contents. “Woman, woman, woman, man, woman.” She claimed that there was nothing deliberate in these review assignments. It was a practice that the previous editor, Sam Tanenhaus, also engaged in. So is there really gender bias?

“I agree,” said Jennifer Weiner. “A lot of it is affinity, not bias.” While commending the rise of women editors, Weiner insinuated a sinister gender bias that emerged from the top. “I think if you gave us the roster of who those women report to, it might sound different. I wonder if they answer, at the end of the day, to men. Does that matter or make an impact?”

Later in the panel, Paul was to correct Weiner, claiming that the Review had full editorial independence. “Not once did Jill [Abramson] or Bill [Keller] ever interfere with my editorial choices.” And while that may be true, it became clear during the conversation that Paul doesn’t really reflect on what her editorial choices mean. Still, I’ll take Weiner’s speculations — even when woefully wrong, such as the notion that men’s reading habits are limited because they are guided by cover design or that people are somehow shamed by what they read on the subway — as a more useful indicator of gender bias than Paul’s high-handed remarks. Because unlike Paul, Weiner was willing to use case examples to bookend her thorny ideological sentiments.

illtakeyouthereWeiner cited the wildly divergent covers for Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There — the Ecco hardcover a striking drawing, the paperback being composed of flowers — as an example of how drastically publishers are willing to alter their covers for women audiences. And she mentioned her own battles with Target, who demanded that the cover for her new book All Fall Down be tinted blue, with the street in Philadelphia considered too gritty for audiences coveting the usual sunny hues.

“As publishers, you’re working with the availability of images,” said William Morrow Executive Editor Rachel Kahan. She pinpointed one big reason why some of the women’s fiction covers all look the same: the clip art is usually comprised of skinny white yoga models, not regular people. This may account for some of the whitewashing seen on YA book covers and why every book about Africa tends to look the same. When the images used to sell women’s books don’t resemble what’s contained between the covers, much less a reader’s real world, then it seems only natural to ask why we’re still talking about gender balance. The issue is far more complex.

There are still disheartening yet treatable statistics. Moderator Rebecca Mead looked into the gender bias of the New York Times‘s daily reviewers over the course of one year and discovered that it still skewed mostly male: Janet Maslin reviewed 42 male authors and 23 women. Dwight Garner reviewed 43 men and 21 women. Michiko Kakutani reviewed 69 men and 16 women. But the issue is largely a matter of waiting for the old boys to croak (namely, Robert Silvers) and for the VIDA pie charts to include more matching sets of semicircles. [UPDATE: Please see 6/2/14 Update below on the gender ratio numbers. Please see my independent audit reflecting troubling gender parity.]

Covers, said Paul, have never factored into the Review‘s assignments. I already knew this. So I took the liberty of asking a provocative question at the panel’s end, pointing out to a recent Facebook thread which dared to ask, “Large novels (600+ pages) by women whose dominant mode isn’t narrative realism? I can only think of two offhand: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.” I then cited five literary and/or risk-taking titles that The New York Times Book Review had not reviewed:

  1. Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  2. Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  3. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing: (publication date: April 15, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing mere capsule)
  4. Mona Simpson’s Casebook: (publication date: April 15, a review had not been published until this afternoon and I obviously did not see it)
  5. Cynthia Bond’s Ruby: (publication date: April 29, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)

Paul claimed, “We’ve reviewed four of the five.” [UPDATE: See 6/14/14 UPDATE below.] But it’s clear from the evidence that she was either lying through her teeth or is now so hopelessly slipshod at her job that reviews of books that aren’t huge will never run on a timely basis. That would certainly fit the Review‘s abominably dilatory standards for two National Book Award winners: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (published August 30, 2011, reviewed December 30, 2011) and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (published November 25, 2010, reviewed by Maslin and profiled by Chip McGrath, but never reviewed in the NYTBR). I mentioned these two names. Paul brushed it off.

I asked what could be done to encourage more wild, edgy, and ambitious literature from women? Books from outsiders. Ambitious books written by women that can be included, now that women are, thank the heavens, storming the gates. For this, I was informed later on Twitter that I was insulting. An amental agent, whose superficial sensibilities are writ large in her most recent sale (“a guidebook for those of us who can’t afford diamond encrusted pacifers or superyachts but still aspire to our own version of the glamorous life”), also misquoted and condemned me as a moron:

And the Women’s Media Group suggested that I was oppressing the room with my loud voice:

The mystery of plentiful 600 page novels written by women and not rooted in realism — one that I’d actually like to know the answer to, which is why I bothered to ask it — remains unsolved. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was offered. (Sorry, it’s 496 pages.) And so was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which many in the Facebook thread insisted did not count. The reason I asked the question was not to suggest that women couldn’t write ambitious novels, but to get people to consider why women aren’t allowed to. As this Wikipedia list of longest novels points out, only Ayn Rand and Madeleine de Scudéry have been permitted doorstoppers. And I’m hardly the only one ruminating on this.

But the goal is no longer to have challenging discussions, to consider opposing points of view (or even the strange exotic men who enjoy reading both Weiner and Knausgaard), or to ask uncomfortable questions. The goal of organizations like the Women’s Media Group and people like Pamela Paul is to drown out the outside voices because they’re too busy congratulating themselves over opinions and sentiments they’ve already made their minds about and have no intention of changing. But I do want to thank Rachel Kahan, who made an attempt to address my question after the stunned hush, Jennifer Weiner (who has always listened to my loud voice with respect), and Rebecca Mead, who was a good moderator. These three women understood that I was not the enemy. I’m not so sure about the other ones.

[6/2/14 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers from the three New York Times daily book reviewers were incorrect. I have performed a full and detailed independent audit (links to all reviews and methodology are provided in article) for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014. The breakdown is as follows: Dwight Garner — Male Authors: 45.5 (65.9%), Female Authors: 23.5 (34.1%); Michiko Kakutani — Male Authors: 37.5 (69.4%), Female Authors: 16.5 (30.6%); Janet Maslin — Male Authors: 68 (68.7%), Female Authors: 31 (31.3%).]

[6/14/14 UPDATE: Two weeks after the panel, two more reviews of the five books that I cited to Pamela Paul appeared in the June 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times Book Review: Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine was reviewed by Dayna Tortorici and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was reviewed by Malie Meloy. This brings the total up to three books, out of the “four out of five” claim Paul uttered at the panel. While I approve of these coverage decisions, this nevertheless brings up another sizable problem at the NYTBR: the tendency for reviews to run quite late after their publication dates. I will take up this issue with hard data in a future post. Pamela Paul continues to refuse to discuss these issues, as does public editor Margaret Sullivan. I stand by my “mendacious” charge until Paul produces a fourth review.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Faye Flam

Faye Flam appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #223. Flam is most recently the author of The Score.

Condition of the Show: Attempting to contend with gender generalizations.

Author: Faye Flam

Subjects Discussed: Boot Seduction Camp as the prism with which to approach evolutionary science, the Mystery Method, crude philosophical rules vs. scientific rules, the SRY gene, masculinity’s backup gene, genetics and the delineation between gender, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, bonobos and bisexuality, biological pair bonding, Alan Alda and testosterone poisoning, the decline of macho actors, oxytocin, Andrew Sullivan’s testosterone injections, certain oversights Ms. Flam made from John Tierney’s article on the correlation between shorter men and money, Alfred Kinsey and the human heterodoxy, Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow, Dr. Peter Hurd’s studyon finger length and aggression, the differences between humans and sparrows, Rachmaninov’s hands, evolutionary science and other species, homosexuality and “sexually antagonistic selection,” risk-taking behavior and attractiveness, biological clocks, young men and very older women, and whether scientists or cultural pundits set the terms for human behavior.


Correspondent: But not every man, Faye, is going to sit down and slap thousands of dollars wanting to get laid like this.

Flam: (laughs) No.

Correspondent: I mean, this isn’t the archetypal man. It’s almost as if this is an extraordinary, almost cartoonish construct on which you respond with science and examples with other species and the like. So I’m wondering why this was the one. Why you couldn’t just have some schlumpy guy in a bar who isn’t paying thousands of dollars?

Flam: I guess so. Well, these classes are pretty popular. There are a lot of guys who are into this. And The Game was a bestselling book. So it was a pretty big phenomenon. And it was a little extraordinary, which is what made it interesting. I wanted to start with something that was human and yet not totally mundane. And it caught my interest. It did sort of reflect this idea of the male sex working at just getting sex. Women will put a lot of effort into their hair and makeup, but not really to get sex. I mean, You can walk into a bar without makeup and still get some guy to go home with you.

Correspondent: Depends upon what types of bars you frequent.

Download BSS #223: Faye Flam (MP3)

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