Heroines, Witnessing Executions and Other Letters to the Editor

Self-Created Disasters

To the Editor:

Thank you, Lucinda Rosenfeld, for highlighting in “Heroines of Self-Hate” (March 14) a trend in the development of female characters that aggravates me regularly in contemporary literature.

Where have the Becky Sharps and Undine Spraggs gone? In their place, we have woman after woman who is her own worst enemy. Usually, these women are white and perhaps white women of a certain class no longer experience enough external barriers to self-realization.

The self-created disaster is a tidy solution to the absence of any more meaningful conflict. Though Rosenfeld’s piece focuses on writing by women, I see this continually in fiction from male writers as well, where I call it the “cup size + emotional damage” approach to character development; in these cases, however, I ascribe it to pure laziness.

Elizabeth Sylvia
Mattapoisett, Mass.

Bearing Witness

To the Editor:

In her true crime shortlist (March 14), Kate Tuttle notes that the author of “Two Truths and a Lie,” Ellen McGarrahan, was totally in favor of the death penalty until she saw one being carried out.

Russell Baker once wrote that as a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper, he was offered the opportunity to witness three executions by hanging. This was touted as a rollicking entertainment that any red-blooded journalist should jump at the chance to experience. Baker hesitated and let an eager colleague take his place. It turned out to be hideously prolonged, and the colleague was physically sick afterward and again several times over the ensuing few days.

Any person in favor of capital punishment has a moral responsibility to witness an execution — a real one — at least on video. If you endorse state-engineered death, you need to see what the grim reality of a human life being ended really looks like.

David English
Acton, Mass.

Risking Business

To the Editor:

Thank you, Emily Mortimer, for the delightful perspective on “Lolita” in your essay, “Witness for the Defense” (March 7).

It saddens me to wonder whether nowadays an author would write and a publisher publish such a book. As I think about it and other works like the creative tour de force “Infinite Jest,” part of what separates them from the prosaic and anodyne is the risk the authors take by challenging and perhaps offending us; by making us uncomfortable; by giving voice to thoughts and ideas we may wish remained silent.

Yet this is what gives depth and meaning to art. I fear the zeitgeist represses its expression.

Jay Markowitz
Pound Ridge, N.Y.

In Service

To the Editor:

In his review of Rosa Brooks’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and Justin Fenton’s “We Own This City” (March 14), Maurice Chammah suggests that the desire of many ordinary beat cops to move from patrol duty to “tactical” — the work of SWAT teams and specialized units — is the result of boredom and dreams of “shootouts and high-risk situations.”

Perhaps. But Brooks’s “Tangled Up In Blue” suggests a more nuanced explanation, namely that the real-life experience of policing doesn’t remotely approach the Hollywood version. Brooks describes the many complex and intractable social problems that police officers deal with day to day — the effects of “poverty, addiction and violence,” in Chammah’s words — and the cynicism and fatigue that that experience can give rise to.

A police chief I worked with years ago put it best: “Policing is not about adventure; it’s about service.” As a lawyer who has represented victims of police misconduct for more than a quarter century, my conclusion is that people who go into policing, an honorable profession, need to better understand what it’s all about before signing up. And police agencies need to sort for folks who are ready to do the difficult and thankless work of “service.” When that happens, I will have fewer cases to bring.

Andrew G. Celli Jr.
New York

Same Odes

To the Editor:

In his engaging review of Annalee Newitz’s “Four Lost Cities,” Russell Shorto notes that a woman living in a Turkish city 9,000 years ago replastered her walls, swept and decorated her home with art “much like us,” but was unlike us in burying ancestors beneath her bed and keeping the skulls of deceased loved ones in niches in the walls.

But we also keep ancestors and people we loved in our homes — framed in photographs sitting by our beds and hanging on our walls. Often things others do that seem very different from what we do, are really different ways of doing the same thing.

Deborah Tannen

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