"The people interested in the history of comic books are not the same as the people interested in the history of the polygraph. (And very few people in either group are also interested in the history of feminism.)"
Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014), pp. 295-6.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is extraordinary: a compelling, strange secret history of alternative sexuality and modern times. William Moulton Marston - under the pseudonym Charles Moulton - based the superhero he created on his wife and their girlfriend - the latter the niece of Margaret Sanger, the campaigner who popularised the term "birth control". There are reasons why Wonder Woman proclaims "Suffering Sapho!" and that she's so often tied up in chains...
Marston, who invented a "lie detector" based on a test of systolic blood pressure, which later led to the polygraph, was shrouded in falsehoods - about his private life, about who in his household wrote what, about his qualifications as a psychologist. There's lots on how his threesome contrived to build a myth around him, and how for all he extolled the versions of men submitting to dominant women, he rather had it the other way round.
The epilogue is especially interesting, placing the feminist reclamation of Wonder Woman in the early 1970s amid what else what happening in the feminist movement at the time. The examples Lepore cites of "trashing" seem like a modern phenomena.
I also remain haunted weeks after finishing Do No Harm, a memoir by brain surgeon Henry Marsh. Marsh recounts a number of different cases where he has got it right or wrong - the latter always with horrific consequences. Really this is a catalogue of the terrible awfulness that life brings to us, and of human efforts to get through it. Marsh is painfully honest about his own fears and weakness, but what haunts me are his perfect turns of phrase: that all surgeons are carry with them cemeteries of the patients they have wronged; that, when facing the angry parents of a young patient, love is selfish; that doctors forget patients and patients forget doctors if everything goes well, and it's only the tragedies that linger...
Marsh's anger at the management and cut-backs, and the effect he can see them having on people's lives, echoed Nick Davies' Hack Attack, his account of the hacking scandal that he originally broke in the Guardian. At the end, he rants against a system that has removed accountability from our political systems, where even the most terrible personal tragedy has become a commodity. Like Marsh, Davies is forthcoming about his own failings - how he missed connections or said the wrong things or jeopardised his whole case. He's also good in making his account of Leveson so much about human character.
And now I am 35 pages into H is for Hawk, which is currently collecting literary prizes all over town. It turns out to echo much of these other books - how we handle tragedy and injustice and anger, how we're losing the old world in exchange for something as yet unknown. I'm not quite sure what it's about yet - so far a memoir of loss, some personal history and falconry, and the works of TH White (I am also rereading The Once and Future King) - but there's this striking moment on the process of grief, gleaned from too many books.
"I read that after denial comes grief. Or anger. Or guilt. I remember worrying about which stage I was at. I wanted to taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible. But there was no sense, and I didn't recognise any of these emotions at all."
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014), p. 17.