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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reconsidering Our Villains

Every story has a hero, and if it's a certain kind of story, then there might be a villain, too. But what if there were no outright villains? What if every person were a mixture of good and evil, kindness and carelessness and callousness. What if every man had some of the traits of John Quincy Adams for instance?

Bow giving me a frank look this morning
Or what if  any wrongdoing alleged was not where we have been trained to think it must be by the literature we have read? For instance, Aaron Burr was acquitted of treason, and yet historians today often go on believing that he was guilty of it. Why? Is it because they keep reading -- and citing -- each others' books that keep asserting that Burr was a traitor?  

I am currently working on the second half of a book about an internment camp in China run by the Japanese. A lot of very bad things happened there. But not all of them were the fault of the Japanese Commandant who ran the camp. It would be tempting to portray him as a villain, but that does not appear to be the truth, based on contemporary accounts I have read.

My historical reading is not limited to things that happened during the War of 1812 or during World War II. I also read books about the history of ape language studies.

I have read about Washoe, Lucy Temerlin, Nim Chimpsky and several other chimpanzees who are less famous, all of whom were born on the Lemmon farm in Oklahoma. Over the years, reading many different such accounts, I came to form a bit of a caricatured view of one of the people who kept appearing in all those books. I blush to admit it, but I came to believe he was a three penny opera villain.

It's not fair to judge somebody you've never met by the accounts of other people who may have had a falling out with him. That's why I would never take Thomas Jefferson's word on the guilt or innocence of Aaron Burr. And that's why, over the past few years, after understanding the intricacy of animal rights propaganda, I have come to reevaluate the role of Dr. William Lemmon in the history of ape language research.

That's all I'm going to say for now. I have a novel to write and an ape to research language with. But if you have also read all those books about Washoe and Lucy and Nim, please reconsider. Maybe he was not as dark a figure as you have been led to believe. I recently spoke with someone who knew him, and she confirmed my suspicions that it's not quite like that.


  1. I am amazed you can write such detailed blog posts while writing a novel. I think a lot of books and stories are biased, so sometimes later we only learn the truth.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I possibly could make a great deal more progress in my novel if I did not blog at all, but I find that if I allow myself to free associate ideas in several different fields -- like ape language studies and 19th century diplomacy -- then it helps keep my mind limber enough to settle down to the task of telling a coherent story about a completely different topic.

      It is very hard to separate an author's bias from the story they tell, and I think this is more so in the case of non-fiction than fiction.