The Other McCain

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‘Cold-Blooded Kindness’ By Barbara Oakley: A Provocative Read

Posted on | August 17, 2011 | 4 Comments

by Smitty

Barbara Oakley’s book, “Cold-Blooded Kindness” is an excellent read for those with the courage to have their ideas challenged. The subject matter is disturbing. Carole Alden murdered Marty Sessions. After that, the case sinks into a modern swamp of ambiguity. The killer, victim, and setting are straight out of Jerry Springer.

In reviewing the biography of Carole Alden, Oakley discovered she had been exposed both to dangerous medications and serious illness in utero. Throughout her childhood, Alden expressed significant artisitc talent, and notable altruistic love, both of animals and humans. Into her teenage years, Alden exhibited behavior that occasionally, could be characterized as rebellious.

Stylistically, Oakley operates well within the facts of the case. They are lurid. However, her editorial choice to mix biographical detail of Alden’s and Sessions’s lives with the courtroom drama of their case makes for unusally riveting non-fiction reading. Typically, an extended family will have some black sheep. My own seedier relatives made reading the trashier details of the story particularly uncomfortable.

Setting this book apart from the crime story crowd is the scientific angle. Oakley is deeply concerned about the neurological aspects of Alden’s gestation. Conservatives generally support the notion of freewill, and recoil from the notion of giving murderers a nerological crutch. Yet the case is intriguing. Also having ideas challenged: social science researchers studying battered women. She relates Mike McGrath investigating the research of Lenore Walker, emphasis original:

In arcane, teasingly academic fashion, Walker was saying something extraordinary: that her findings related to battered women had never been compared to those of non-battered women. And possibly more important, those passages telegraphed that she had no intention of ever doing a study employing a standard control group—exactly the kind of research needed to demonstrate the validity of her claims.

She just doesn’t think the rules [of research] apply to her, he realized.

As he began to burrow deeper, he began to see more. Walker’s work, as it turned out, had never been replicated. And she claimed she couldn’t compare her group with normal women, because in thirty years, she hadn’t been able to find an equivalent group of some four hundred un-battered women. A psychologist might think, So what? If normal women were shown to be different from battered women, this still wouldn’t get at the quality and accuracy of battered women’s perceptions.

Oakley does a fantastic job of serving up the facts alone, and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. As someone who is both a Christian conservative, and prefers a Reality Therapy approach to analyzing legal situations such as Alden’s, the facts of her gestation and prior behavior, while not uninteresting, don’t seem compelling.

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that Alden’s personality was irrevocably altered by gestational events, we’re at loss to hold anyone accountable for anything, and can safely scuttle life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as societal goals. Alden’s wildly idiosyncratic situation just isn’t her fault. We’re stuck in a purely deterministic situation, where existence is a closed, chemical question. Humanity is just an ant heap. Let our Ruling Class queen ants make all of the calls. Give me ObamaCare, and give me debt.

Life is not your crutch factory.

And yet, Oakley makes the libertarian card a difficult play. She characterizes the current neurological research, and arrives at the conclusion: it is ambiguous. There is no clear line between where the neurology ends and freewill begins. No one short of the Almighty can grasp the molecular state of Alden’s brain at the time of the murder. So, even though it’s messy, dissatisfying and imperfect, the jury is the least-worst way to arrive at a possibly erroneous conclusion. How does this square with Christianity? Does the notion of someone hard-wired for doom square with the Bible? What does this mean for people with Down’s Syndrome?

Very well worth your time, the book.

Update: fixed erroneous post title. Also, another review here.


4 Responses to “‘Cold-Blooded Kindness’ By Barbara Oakley: A Provocative Read”

  1. Free-range Oyster
    August 17th, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ comments in his Mere Christianity talks about psychology, Christianity, and judgement. There are those, he posited, who are mentally or emotionally crippled from things outside their control. Whether trauma, disease, or some other cause, their thinking and acting are impaired. Only God knows what is in their heart, or what they would do without that impairment. They are still free to choose, but the perception of the world on which they base their acts is badly flawed. Thus, we can judge and condemn unlawful acts (he used the example of deserting soldiers, since it was so recent an experience for his audience), but their eternal judgement is in the hands of the one Just Judge.

  2. htowt
    August 17th, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    Smitty, coming from a trade school of some renown (and assuming Thermodynamics 101 was a course requirement), you might enjoy the opening to this post…

  3. Huggy
    August 17th, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

     Next thing you know “Minority report” (movie staring Tom C.) will be implemented using  gestation reports instead of two out of three psychics.

  4. Steve Spangler
    August 18th, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    There’s that whole “Jacob I loved  Esau I hated” dynamic too.