This Month in Books: Two Sides of the Same Gaslight

Ingrid Bergman holding a book in a scene from "Gaslight." (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter is a bundle of contradictions, a cornucopia of counterintuitions. “I pursue sleep so hard I become invigorated by the chase,” writes Marina Benjamin in her memoir-cum-treatise on insomnia. “You’re not supposed to identify with monsters. But people are rarely disturbed by things they don’t already recognize in themselves,” says Guy Gunaratne in an interview about his debut novel, which revolves around a real-life act of terrorism perpetrated by someone who reminds Gunaratne very much of himself. And Gemma Hartley, recalling a time when she was sick in bed and her husband failed to prepare their son properly for school before it was time for her (still sick!) to walk him there, explains how different the emotional fallout of the mess-up was for the two parents. She felt guilty that her son would have a bad day at school, whereas her husband easily moved on:

Even though my husband had been the one on duty for the morning, I was the one left with the guilt of taking my son to school ill prepared…. Parenting mistakes aren’t a moral failing for him like they are for me. Dads get the at-least-he’s-trying pat on the back when people see them mess up. Moms get the eye rolls and judgment…. I was still expected to be the one in charge, even when I was incapacitated, because isn’t that just what moms are supposed to do? He wasn’t expected to have the morning routine locked down. He was still a dad — still exempt from judgment.

And as Hartley points out, the problem isn’t just the ‘care gap’ between the genders: It’s that even “talking about emotional labor requires emotional labor.” Moreover, when women do try to make men care, men will twist women’s own needs back on them, asking women to do their caring for them — to care about caring for them:

One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him.


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David Montero, meanwhile, marvels that the bigger and perhaps more disturbing part of Watergate is somehow the least remembered. Investigations into Nixon’s slush fund led regulators to the discovery that American firms had been bribing political parties around the world, to the tune of at least $1 billion dollars. The vastness of the wrongdoing left investigators feeling like they lived in an upside-down reality. “It was inconceivable to me,” the director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division Stanley Sporkin recalled, “that companies could be bribing all over the world, and the shareholders not know how they’re making their money.” And it wasn’t just the casual, widespread criminality that shocked everyone, but also the very real geopolitical consequences — entire elections seemed to have been swung (and inevitable subsequent government overthrows ignited) abroad by American corporate money. “Surely the public expects more than to have foreign policy made in the boardrooms of United Brands or Lockheed,” a congressman quipped on the matter. Laws were passed to outlaw international corporate bribery, but over time conservative thinkers reduced anti-bribery law’s purpose from the ideological necessity of preserving democracy to the amoral and quotidian goal of preserving market competition. And, as Tim Wu points out in his book on the subject, a nearly identical rightward shift happened in the interpretation of antitrust laws over the same period of time (and at the hands of the same conservative school of thought). Our reviewer Will Meyer writes:

…by the seventies, a Chicago School lawyer named Robert Bork stood at the center of unmaking the tradition pioneered by Brandeis and Roosevelt. Bork, starting on the fringes, argued that antitrust laws should focus on “consumer welfare” instead of ensuring competition. Explaining how this standard shifted, Wu writes, “the government or plaintiff had to prove to a certainty that the complained-of behavior actually raised prices for consumers.” Wu chronicles how, as Bork moved the goal posts for understanding antitrust laws, their enforcement began to slip as well…. Justice Scalia [wrote] in 2004: “The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system.”

But I think the most counterintuitive statement in this month’s books newsletter comes from Lara Bazelon‘s new book about restorative justice for the wrongfully convicted, in which she writes that “seventy-eight percent of… exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies…” The foremost reason that innocent people end up being exonerated, she reveals, is the discovery of police and prosecutorial misconduct, by either one person or a small group of people over many years, which can lead to hundreds or even thousands of convictions being reversed.

And last but not least, in her review of Jean Améry’s recently translated 1978 apologia for the ever-maligned Charles Bovary, Ankita Chakraborty points out that Emma Bovary was a contradiction in terms, the kind of woman who only exists when a man is writing her:

wherever [Emma Bovary] went — and she went all around, everywhere — she was never questioned for her whereabouts or for her absence. In what world is a woman who so freely moves never questioned by society regarding her movements? Only in a world where the woman also happens to be a man.

Which feels to me sort of like the inverse of a remarkable study that Gemma Hartley cites — almost like they’re two sides of the same gaslight:

A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future.

With that disquieting information in mind during this most busy of emotional labor seasons, happy reading, happy counterintuiting, and happy holidays!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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