Truth: The Daughter of Time (Plus Science, Arts, & Humanities)

Truth DOT 2Richard III’s reburial in Leicester, England this week was a ceremony fit for a king. There was a three-day viewing attended by thousands, live television coverage, and a cathedral service presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, with a role for Cardinal Vincent Nichols too. Sherlock Holmes — I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III — read a poem written for the event by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate.

Queen Elizabeth II was not there, but she sent a message, calling the reinterment of King Richard III “an event of great national and international significance.”

What’s interesting is that all this pomp and circumstance was for a monarch who has been dead for half a millennium and reviled for just as long.

Many of us know of Richard III from Shakespeare, who portrays the last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other crimes. In Richard III (1592), Shakespeare connects the controversial king’s behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”

Richard has always had his defenders, though.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), a historical mystery novel set in the 20th Century, Inspector Alan Grant decides that Richard III couldn’t have been a murderous criminal because, based on his 15th/16th Century portrait, he simply doesn’t look like one.

While some people (ahem, Shakespeare) choose to emphasize Richard’s alleged “deformities,” Grant focuses on what he perceives to be Richard’s “extraordinary eyes,” which were “set close under… brows slightly drawn in [a] worried, over-conscientious frown.” Grant believes he’s looking at “the face of a great judge, a great administrator,” not “the author of the most revolting crime in history,” the presumed murders of the princes.

As I’ve discussed previously, Grant’s attempt to exonerate Richard through the application of the historical method uncovers “the truth”: that “villainy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” and that history is written by the victors. The Tudors defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and influenced how history remembered him.

We may never know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, but thanks to a collaboration of scientists, historians, and other scholars we now know much more about the man history has held responsible for their deaths.

In 2012, archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester. Since that time, researchers have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing.* They have also discovered that he had roundworms, possessed a spinal curvature that wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in Richard III, and was probably blue-eyed and blond-haired (at least while a child), contrary to popular perception.

Still, many questions about Richard remain, from his alleged role in his nephews’ disappearances to why his Y chromosome does not match the DNA of others living today who claim Plantagenet and Tudor paternal ancestry. In time, future scientific and historical discoveries may give us the answers.

*Not that everyone agrees that these bones belong to Richard: See Richard III: We’re Burying the Wrong Body; and the rebuttal: We Are Definitely Burying the Right Body, Say Archaeologists.

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Deception: On & Between The Covers

Typee Portion of Cover

In discussing Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, David Samuels writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “All literature is a species of fraud.” Authors routinely borrow from other sources and process first- and second-hand experiences through their imaginations. Melville was no exception.

Typee was originally published in 1846 as a travelogue purporting to describe the author’s four months on a Polynesian island. Soon after publication, however, reviewers questioned the accuracy of the story, with one prominent review “dismiss[ing] it as a ‘piece of Munchausenism.’”

Apparently, like the “sock-puppets” we have today, Melville defended his credibility in anonymous articles. According to Samuels, “The suggestion that Typee was a fraud stung Melville deeply.” Yes, he took creative liberties with the details of his time on the island, but he otherwise believed in the truths behind his autobiographical fiction.

I read Samuels’ piece with more recent examples of literary lies in mind, such as the disgraced James Frey’s embellished memoir and the beloved J. K. Rowling’s impersonation of an ex-military police officer.

There’s nothing wrong with adding creative touches to nonfiction or assuming a pseudonym, as long as the resulting books are marketed appropriately. As I said on this blog back when we first learned about the famous woman behind ex-military police officer “Robert Galbraith,” “We don’t expect a fictional novel to be real between the covers, but we do expect the text on the front and back to reflect the truth about the book’s origin.” In that case, “Galbraith’s” biography, which was almost entirely a fabrication, claimed that the idea for the main character “grew directly” from the [fake] author’s “experiences.”

A fake author bio that suggests a work of fiction is based on first-hand fact is a problem from a consumer protection angle. So is a memoir or travelogue that is closer to fiction than to real-life. Sometimes that happens inadvertently–the effects of memory over time–but deviations from the truth shouldn’t be intentional. If the front and back covers indicate that the content of the book is factually accurate, then that’s what readers should get. After all, it is often one of the factors that convinces consumers to spend their hard-earned money on that book instead of one of the others on the shelves.

These days, it seems like most people refer to Melville’s Typee as a novel, not a memoir or travelogue, thus resolving the controversy around its authenticity. The struggle behind the marketing of that novel nearly 170 years ago is one that many authors probably identify with today. Saying a book is based in fact might increase sales, but authors and publishers take a risk when they lie. Nobody wants to be accused of “Munchausenism,” right?

Not that it’s unusual to twist the truth sometimes. We do it for a variety of reasons, from sparing someone’s feelings (“hey, that’s a great haircut!”) to keeping ourselves out of trouble (“I swear, the dog ate my homework!”). But some lies are worse than others, and among the more pernicious examples are the ones that manipulate people into making purchasing decisions based on false information (a/k/a consumer fraud).

Other fabrications might not be such a big deal.

On that note, today’s my 28th birthday! It’s not a total lie. I don’t feel any older than that. ;)

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Arrrr, Matey! Is That George Washington?

Who was George Washington Illustration“Did George Washington really wear stuff like this?” My seven-year-old daughter points to an illustration in Roberta Edwards’ Who Was George Washington?*

“Yeah,” I reply, not that I know the ins and outs of 18th Century colonial male fashion.

She frowns. “He looks kind of piratey.”

The “American Gentleman’s Outfit” is missing an eyepatch and a saber–two items commonly associated with pirates– but I see what she means.

Whatever real-life pirates of the Atlantic actually wore, it’s interesting that my daughter thinks our esteemed first President should’ve dressed differently. It wasn’t long ago that she, her twin sister, and their friends imagined they were pirates, invariably portrayed as swashbuckling men who hang out on ships and hide treasure on remote island beaches. But she doesn’t seem to respect those seafaring bandits the way she did in the past. “They weren’t good guys,” she explains.

No, I guess not, depending on how you look at them. Were they ruthless criminals or morally justified anti-establishment protesters? Or something in-between?

According to Anthropologists Shannon Lee Dawdy and Joe Bonni in Towards a General Theory of Piracy,** which discusses the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730):

“The pirates of the Caribbean explicitly opposed the often violent control of labor and goods by nationalist mercantile companies and what they viewed as ‘tyrannical’ inequalities.”


“In addition to the usual hunt for booty, pirates often took captives and sold them into slavery (if infidels) or held them for ransom.”


“Most scholars agree that mercantilism was one of the major conditions that helped create piracy by dislocating maritime workers from their familiar ports, keeping smaller traders out of the shipping business, and making economic survival in the colonies even more difficult when the import of foodstuffs or other deemed necessities were strictly controlled.”

The economic conditions that fostered piracy also contributed, at least in part, to the revolutionary spirit in the colonies, suggesting that George Washington may have had more in common with pirates than his “cocked hat.”

Plus, pirates and patriots were rule-breakers who challenged the establishment, some to a greater extent than others.

Zinn coverAs historian Howard Zinn argued in A People’s History of the United States, George Washington was part of an elite group of colonists who wanted to defeat Britain “without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history.”

Unsurprisingly, the book my daughter picked out, Who Was George Washington?, does not criticize our “founding fathers” the way Zinn does. But, to its credit, it presents the man who would become our first President as a complicated human being, a wealthy slave-owner who was initially reserved in his protest of British policies in the late colonial era.

For example:

Who Was George Washington CoverOn Washington’s stance on the Stamp Act, a tax Britain imposed on the colonists to pay expenses related to the French and Indian War, Edwards writes: “He thought it was wrong, but he didn’t join in the protests.”

As for the tax on tea, Edwards says, “[It] made everyone mad… including George Washington. Rather than pay the tax on tea, he switched to coffee,” as his rebellious spirit stirred.

There seem to be a handful of inaccuracies in Edwards’ book. For instance, the timeline at the end says “1776–George signs the Declaration of Independence,” when he did not. But overall, the book largely comports with my lay understanding of late colonial American history.

So what are the lessons for my children in all of this? In my opinion, the purpose of learning about George Washington isn’t to memorize whether he signed the Declaration of Independence or not. It’s to understand larger concepts.

I hope my children take away at least two messages from our discussions about this topic:

First, that historical figures, whether it’s George Washington or Blackbeard, are complicated individuals who were not all “good” or all “bad”; and second, that within reason, it’s good to question authority, whether it’s a book, the government, or even their mother.


*Illustrated by True Kelley.

**For a more thorough explanation of “pirate culture(s),” see Shannon Lee Dawdy & Joe Bonni, Towards a General Theory of Piracy, Anthropological Quarterly 85, 673 (2012).

***Did pirates really say “Arrr”?

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A 7-year-Old Asks: “Why Do Colonial Women Nag All The Time?”

Williams HouseMy 7-year-old twins enjoy historical fiction, anything that gives them a glimpse into how people lived in the past. It was hardly surprising then that one of them would choose Ginger Howard’s William’s House from the school library. The beautifully illustrated book features a fictional family that has moved from England to the New World in 1637. The father of the household, William, builds a home just like the house he grew up in across the Atlantic.

His house is perfect — that is, until the hot New World summers spoil his family’s meat and vegetables, the drier autumns turn the thatch roof into a fire hazard, and the wind threatens to crush his house with fallen trees and branches.

His wife Elizabeth is the first to react to these dangerous conditions, saying repeatedly, “Something must be done!”

William makes the necessary alterations, from building a root cellar to clearing the surrounding trees. While it’s hard to believe the speed with which William completes his DIY projects, the way he transforms his house into a uniquely colonial American structure is an important lesson for children about adapting to new surroundings and new ideas. The book also contains many interesting details about colonial life.

However, the book’s focus on William’s work, always prompted by Elizabeth’s command that “something must be done,” caused my daughter to ask, “Why did colonial women nag all the time? Doesn’t Elizabeth do anything else?”

While there are clues about Elizabeth’s work, the text does not adequately address what she’s up to while her husband alters their house. It’s as if the pudding, bread, and succotash the family eats arrive on the table by magic.

To address my daughter’s misunderstanding, I told her that, in the past, many people expected women to take care of their families inside the home while men worked outside of the home on farms or in businesses. However, I added, many colonial English women also worked on farms, doing everything from working in the fields to milking cows. I didn’t talk about indentured servitude and slavery and how those vile systems changed the division of labor in the household. That part of the conversation will come later, as will a more detailed discussion about the way our society has retained some of the gender norms from William’s and Elizabeth’s time.

For now, it’s enough for my daughters to know that real-life versions of Elizabeth didn’t just get to put their feet up as they ordered their husbands around. I knew I got my point across when my daughter replied, “They should’ve called this book ‘William & Elizabeth’s House.’”

Indeed. While I might expect a book from 17th Century to discount Elizabeth’s contribution to her family’s survival, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book from the 21st Century to do that. But at least it encouraged an interesting conversation with my children.

*The book was illustrated by Larry Day and published in 2001.

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Judges Should Cite Dr. Seuss More Often (And Not Just For His Birthday)

Yates v. United StatesHave you ever wondered how courts interpret statutes? Judges usually claim that they apply “traditional tools of statutory construction” to decide what laws mean. It’s a tedious and often arbitrary process.** U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, however, managed to make it a smidge more interesting earlier this week when she cited Dr. Seuss in her analysis of a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the law Congress passed in response to the 2001 Enron scandal (Remember that financial accounting nightmare?).

In her dissenting opinion in Yates v. United States, in which our highest court addressed the issue of whether a fish is a “tangible object” under Sarbanes-Oxley, Justice Kagan wrote:Quote from Kagan Opinion (2)The case had to do with a fisherman off the Gulf Coast who ordered his crew to throw undersized red grouper overboard after being caught by federal agents with the small fry. The fisherman argued that a criminal charge under Sarbanes-Oxley was improper because that law, which prohibited the destruction of evidence, pertained to corporate and accounting deception, not fishing. The fish he tossed over were not “tangible things,” he argued, because “tangible things” in Sarbanes-Oxley referred to “tangible things” that contained information, like a record or document.

In the “plurality” opinion, which means a majority of the justices agreed on the result but not on the reasoning, the Supreme Court sided with the fisherman. He’s lucky that Kagan’s humorous use of Dr. Seuss in the dissent — her attempt to show a more conventional understanding of “tangible” — wasn’t more persuasive.

Still, Kagan’s citation to Dr. Seuss demonstrates the author’s enduring impact on our society more than two decades after his death. Most of us have read at least one, if not many, of Dr. Seuss’s classics. He published a minimum of 44 children’s books, which have been translated into many languages and have become the basis for television programs and movies.

On Monday, March 2nd, Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel) would’ve turned 111-years-old. That day is not only his birthday, but also the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day, a literacy campaign that encourages every child to read on March 2nd—and hopefully every day thereafter!

Dr. Seuss’s playful language and illustrations are a great way to engage early readers, who have a multitude of Seussian classics to enjoy like One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat. Soon there will be one more, What Pet Should I Get, a previously unpublished children’s book Dr. Seuss may have written between 1958 and 1962. Apparently, his wife found it and other unpublished works shortly after his death, but misplaced these items until 2013. What Pet Should I Get will be available this July.

Maybe our Supreme Court will cite it next term. ;)

So, what are your plans for March 2nd? Do you have a favorite Dr. Seuss book?


*Top Image: From the cover of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss.

**Here’s SCOTUS Blog’s explanation of Yates v. United States. It’s amusing that all three opinions in this case — Ginsburg’s plurality, Alito’s concurrence, and Kagan’s dissent — purport to apply the rules of statutory construction but reach different results. It goes to show that “statutory interpretation” is really just a crapshoot.

Mr. A.M.B. explained the opinion as follows:

Seventy-two fish came out of the sea.
Their inches were many, but not quite twenty.
“These fish are too small,” said the government,
So he dumped them at sea, to avoid punishment.
He should have just kept the fish, you see,
Because they charged him with Sarbanes-Oxley.
They went to the courts, up to the Supreme,
To see if “thing” means what it would seem.
The Justices voted to settle the score.
There were four, then four, then one more.
Four said a “thing” is a “thing,” it can’t be denied.
Four said a “thing” must be like other things described.
(One said that same thing again, I don’t know why.)
Many have made up stories about what they fish,
But few can say they were absolved by ejusdem generis.

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Elin Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day: A Diamond Is Forever?

Ring 3

If you’re looking for a novel to exacerbate any insecurities you may have in your marriage, then look no further than Elin Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day.* One couple is on the eve of a divorce, another has reconciled after a bitter breakup, while another is in the throes of infidelity. In the midst of all of this, preschool teacher Jenna Carmichael and banker Stuart Graham decide to say “I do” in front of their friends and family in Nantucket under the watchful eye of Jenna’s cynical older sister Margot, who’s secretly sleeping with her father’s law partner.

To make matters worse for all involved (whether or not they see it that way), the wedding itself is micromanaged from beyond the grave by Jenna’s late mother, who wrote every last detail down to the color of the linens in a notebook before she died.

What ensues is the wedding weekend from hell. I think we’ve all been to one of those—hopefully not as one of the betrothed!

These are the marriages we wish had broken off during the engagement, if not before.

Elin HilderbrandIn Beautiful Day, we learn about a man who “proposed, gave [his fiancé] his great-grandmother’s ring, [and] broke it off five weeks later,” making his former fiancé “so mad that she never gave the ring back.” It was a Tiffany cut 2.5 carat diamond in a platinum setting, a tremendous loss to the giver’s family for both its monetary and sentimental value. However, the receiver of the ring was not the one to break off the engagement, and whether she must return to the ring as a legal matter depends on the laws of her state.

Generally speaking, a gift is irrevocable. You can’t take it back, but romantic gifts like engagement rings are often exceptions to this rule. Many courts have decided that they are conditional gifts: the ring was given on the condition that the receiving party would marry the giver. In these cases, the analysis focuses on whether the gift was given in the context of a marriage proposal, and not just as a gift for being a girlfriend/boyfriend.

In Lindh v. Surman, 560 Pa. 1 (1999), Pennsylvania’s highest court reiterated the conditional gift principle, quoting Pavlicic v. Vogtsberger, 390 Pa. 502, 136 A.2d 127 (1957):

A gift given by a man to a woman on condition that she embark on the sea of matrimony with him is no different from a gift based on the condition that the donee sail on any other sea. If, after receiving the provisional gift, the donee refuses to leave the harbor — if the anchor of contractual performance sticks in the sands of irresolution and procrastination — the gift must be restored to the donor. Id. at 507, 136 A.2d at 130.

In Pennsylvania, fault is not a factor. The giver of the ring is entitled to its return even if the giver broke off the engagement. California, however, has adopted a different rule, by which the giver loses the right to the ring if s/he was the one to refuse to go through with the marriage. Cal. Civ. Code § 1590.

In Hilderbrand’s Beautiful Day, the applicable law would probably be that of North Carolina, where the doomed couple was from. Though there are sources on the Internet asserting that North Carolina follows a conditional gift rule like Pennsylvania’s, there does not seem to be a published court decision on point. Recently, the Journal of Business & Intellectual Property Law at Wake Forest Law School speculated on how the North Carolina courts would rule in an engagement ring case, concluding:

If the donor gives the gift after the engagement, courts usually consider this a conditional gift.  Implied conditions, however, are recognized in North Carolina, and fault may be also considered.  In other words, expect a very fact-intensive decision until binding precedent has been established.

In Beautiful Day, which only deals with the ring briefly, the giver of the engagement ring contacted an attorney. Having found his legal options limited, he and his family ultimately decided against pursuing litigation for political reasons. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think about how the issue would’ve played out in fiction until the courts finally establish a rule in real life.

In my opinion, the giver of the ring may have been the one to break off the engagement, but it was his family’s heirloom and giving the gift was conditioned on a marriage that never happened. The person who received the ring—as “wronged” as she may have been—should’ve given the ring back.


*Mr. A.M.B. laughed when he read the first line.


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“The Best Stories Are The Ones You Know Yourself”

Tea Country Sri Lanka 2012Last week, one of my seven-year-old twins came home from school with a beautiful book, Frederick Lipp’s Tea Leaves, which she chose because, in her words, “It’s about tea, and we drink a lot of tea.”* Yes, we do. As it turns out, though, this book has a closer connection to our family: It takes place in Sri Lanka.

I am half Sri Lankan, making my red-headed daughters a quarter. At 7-years-old, they are already tired of explaining where Sri Lanka is on a map to their well-intentioned peers (“It’s that tear drop island under India!”). We haven’t taken them to visit yet, so their knowledge of the country comes mostly from maps, family members’ stories, books, and their imaginations. Tea Leaves helps them imagine what their grandmother’s homeland is like.

The beautifully illustrated story features Shanti, a nine-year-old child from Sri Lanka’s mountainous tea region. She lives on an island, but has never seen the sea. Her mother, a low wage plantation worker** who also hasn’t seen the sea, encourages Shanti to explore her curiosity by asking her uncle to tell her stories about the Indian Ocean. Uncle Nochi, who takes the tea leaves from the mountains to the coast by train, has seen the sea many times.

Tea Leaves ThumbnailShanti says to him, “Amma says you told her stories about the sea. Will you tell me stories?”

“Hah,” he replies, “the best stories are the ones you know yourself,” thus encouraging Shanti to see the ocean for herself. The question is whether her family can afford the trip.

This picture book, intended for children ages 6+, couldn’t have come at a better time for my daughters. They recently came home from school asking what race they are. Well, that’s not the easiest question to answer. Racial classifications, based on social construction masquerading as genetics, have always been highly controversial. Most people look at my daughters and assume that they’re white, but their background is much more than their skin color.

I tell my daughters that we’re multi-racial, and then delve into a description of the ethnicities that make us who we are, including Sri Lankan, Irish, and Sioux. None of it is new information to them, but they never really cared much about our background before. Since learning at school about Martin Luther King, Jr., and thus also learning about why he means so much to our history, they are now interested in the question.

Tea Leaves offers my daughters a glimpse into a part of their background. Shanti lives in a different region from where our relatives live, but she is a fictional friend my daughters associate with their heritage. Just as Uncle Nochi says, though, real-life experiences are best. We’ll have to take our daughters to Sri Lanka as soon as possible.

*It’s illustrated by Lester Coloma.

**This book also encourages a discussion about poverty and labor conditions. It made my daughters think about how hard people have to work for our cups of tea.

***Images: My youngest sister took these pictures on her trip to Sri Lanka in December 2011/January 2012. The top picture is from tea country. The bottom picture is the Indian Ocean.

Indian Ocean

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