Category Archives: Culture

What is the Reid Technique?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you watched Netflix’s gripping true-crime series When They See Us (2019), you have seen the Reid Technique in action — and to borrow a line from Holden Caulfied, it makes you want to puke. In the film, we witness detectives, who are feeling pressure from the public to find the rapist(s) of the Central Park jogger as well as pressure from an overzealous prosecutor, implement the Reid technique of interrogation to coerce false confessions from five very scared and innocent teenagers. Recall, that during our school-age years, we learned about Blackstone’s ratio, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” that first appeared in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1760) written by the brilliant British jurist William Blackstone. Almost a century later, that idea was echoed by Benjamin Franklin who expressed it more dramatically: “It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” And as young students we were naive enough to believe that this fundamental belief in criminal law was sacrosanct. Sadly — it is not; for justice in the hands of imperfect human beings is just that — imperfect. In the case of the Central Park Five, the prosecutor and the detectives wiped their derrières with the Miranda Rights and Blackstone’s ratio and flushed it down the toilet, and then washed their hands of the whole stinking mess. 

“So what exactly is the Reid Technique?” you ask. The Reid Technique was developed by consultant and polygraph expert John E. Reid and is used by many law-enforcement agencies in the United States. According to their website “The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation,® [is] widely recognized as the most effective means available to exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty. Our specialized interrogation training seminars are designed for law enforcement and government investigators, corporate security and loss prevention professionals.” Journalist Douglass Starr, in an article about the Reid technique for The New Yorker described its ubiquity and tremendous impact on law enforcement: “Today, John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., trains more interrogators than any other company in the world. Reid’s clients include police forces, private security companies, the military, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the Secret Service—almost anyone whose job involves extracting the truth from those who are often unwilling to provide it. The company’s interview method, called the Reid Technique, has influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations, from the setup of the interview room to the behavior of detectives. The company says that the people it trains get suspects to confess eighty per cent of the time.”

Specifically, the Reid Technique consists of a three phases: (1) Fact analysis (learning the facts of the case), (2) Behavior analysis interview (determining if the suspect is lying), and (3) the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation (the specific steps are delineated here.) Frequently interrogators begin by isolating the subject (eg, placing him or her in a small, windowless room) and immediately coercing the subject to waive his or her Miranda rights (the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) through false promises, lies, or threats. The interrogator begins with the presumption of guilt (stating that the subject committed the crime) and proceeds with an interrogation, which is more of an accusatory process than a Q&A, and adopting the familiar personas of the “good cop/bad cop routine”, designed to elicit a confession. The interrogator presents various narratives (whether true or not) about means, motive, and opportunity. Depending on how the subject responds, the narratives are altered to drill down on the relevant facts of the crime. Over many hours or days, the interrogator eventually wears down the isolated subject who will ultimately fabricate a story to appease his relentless interrogators; in short, the subject confesses to the crime. Game over.

Although the Reid Technique is a valuable tool for law enforcement that leads to many justifiable confessions and convictions, it is not without controversy. The blatant false confessions of the Central Park Five is an obvious case in point. In several criminology publications, critics point out that the Reid technique can result in false confessions, especially when used with children, non-native individuals who speak English as a second-language, and individuals with mental disabilities. In fact, several European countries prohibit lying to suspects (especially young suspects) about evidence since it can lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

In a thorough and fascinating article on how police interrogation works, Julia Layton explores in detail the controversy of the Reid technique. Layton believes the interrogation is not at all fair. First, it is a guilt-presumptive process. A detective, in a headlong pursuit to obtain a confession, can consciously or unconsciously, ignore any evidence of innocence. Second, implementing the Reid technique can be very similar to brainwashing. Layton writes: “[A] lot of the human rights concerns surrounding police interrogation have to do with the fact that psychological interrogation techniques bear an uncanny resemblance to “brainwashing” techniques. The interrogator is attempting to influence the suspect without the suspect’s consent, which is considered an unethical use of psychological tactics. A lot of the techniques used to cause discomfort, confusion and insecurity in the brainwashing process are similar to those used in interrogation: (1) Invading a suspect’s personal space; (2) Not allowing the suspect to speak; (3) Using contrasting alternatives; (4) Positioning confession as a means of escape.”

In the film, we witness how the detectives do everything they can to increase each suspects’ level of stress: isolation from one another and their parents, depriving them of food and water, depriving them of sleep, physical and verbal abuse, threats, etc. All of this causes the subjects to break down emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Layton continues:” The more stress a suspect experiences, the less likely he is to think critically and independently, making him far more susceptible to suggestion. This is even more true when the suspect is a minor or is mentally ill, because he may be poorly equipped to recognize or fight off manipulative tactics. A process designed to cause someone so much stress that he’ll confess just to escape the situation is a process that leaves itself open to false confessions. Researchers estimate between 65 and 300 false confessions per year in the United States.” [emphasis added.]

In his article “Do Police Interrogation Techniques Produce False Confessions?”, Starr explains how psychologist Saul Kassin, a leading expert on false confessions, noted that in most cases, when a confession was introduced in a trial, juries tended to deliver guilty sentences — regardless of any other evidence presented. Starr also describes experiments by Kassin and other psychologists who have devised experiments that test tactics associated with the Reid technique. Time after time, the experiments showed similar results: accusatory questions and direct accusations consistently produced false confessions. Even more problematic is the fact that the Reid technique is extremely dependent of the interrogator’s ability to identify a lie using the suspect’s nonverbal behavior. Starr writes: “Three decades of research have shown that nonverbal signals, so prized by the Reid trainers, bear no relation to deception. In fact, people have little more than coin-flipping odds of guessing if someone is telling the truth, and numerous surveys have shown that police do no better. [Psychologist] Aldert Vrij… found that law-enforcement experience does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Among police officers, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues did the worst. Similarly, an experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying.”

Ultimately, When They See Us is a cautionary tale about what happens when an individual does not know and understand the protections of the Miranda Rights and the Constitution. What is absolutely tragic about this heart-breaking story is that had the teenagers, or more importantly, their parents (or their family friends), known their rights — this travesty of justice could have been easily prevented. First, let’s begin with the fundamental fact that these minors should have never been questioned without a legal guardian in the room. Second, the parents should immediately have invoked their child’s Miranda Rights — the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The interrogations would have come to a screeching halt. Game over. And third, every American has the protection of the Constitution, specifically three amendments: (1) the Fifth Amendment: the right not incriminate oneself; (2) the Sixth Amendment: the right to a speedy trial; and (3) the Fourteenth Amendment: the right to due process. All of these legal safeguards, however, did nothing to prevent the miscarriage of justice delivered to the Central Park Five. Fortunately, decades later, in 2014, they were all exonerated and won a settlement of $40 million.

You have to wonder: if the Central Park Five could, would they trade that $40 million to go back in time, to April 19, 1989, and regain their innocence, their youth, and live the lives that they were meant to live?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense
Why are People Fascinated by Making a Murderer?
How Much Did O. J. Simpson Pay His Lawyers?

For further reading: Essentials of the Reid Technique (2nd Edition) by Fred Ibai, John Reid, Joseph Buckley, and Brian Jayne
An Expendable Man: the Near Execution of Earl Washington, Jr. by Margaret Edds
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/09/the-interview-7

https://people.howstuffworks.com/police-interrogation.htm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reid_technique


The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)
http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/magazine/how-do-you-take-a-picture-of-a-black-hole-with-a-telescope-as-big-as-the-earth.html
http://www.cnn.com/2019/04/10/world/black-hole-photo-scn/index.html

 


What is the Least Trusted Profession in America?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSince 1976, Gallup has surveyed Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of the most common professions in America. et’s begin at the top of the list. For the past four decades, Americans have rated the following professions as the most honest and most ethical, and thus the most trusted: nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. In the most recent poll, conducted in early December 2018, respondents were asked: how would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields? The top five are:

Nurses: 84%
Medical Doctors: 67%
Pharmacists: 66%
High School Teachers: 60%
Police Officers: 54%

Now let’s direct our attention to the bottom of the list. Any guesses? Here’s a clue: recall the recent hearing of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s long-time personal attorney, before the Congressional House Oversight committee on February 27, 2019. Over several unbearable hours, the media presented viewers with a group of perfidious, sycophantic liars that interrogated a convicted liar about a pathological, narcissistic liar — a classic example of the kettle calling the pot calling um… another pot… black. The circus-like hearing (including obligatory animals, like elephants, donkeys, rats, as well as plenty of props and exhibits) was conducted against a backdrop of some rather silly posters (one read “liar, liar pants on fire”) punctuated by cringe-worthy behavior befitting unruly school-aged children: Pecksniffian fingerpointing, churlish name-calling, sanctimonious speeches, melodramatic tirades, mock indignation, shameless sniveling, and surly playground taunts. If you haven’t guessed it already, the least trusted profession in America are members of Congress. Americans consider members of Congress less ethical, and thus less trusted, than car salespeople and telemarketers. Ouch! Come to think of it, Holden Caulfield would have a field day with this gaggle of phonies.

Remember that age-old adage, “it takes one to know one”? That might explain why so many members of Congress aren’t troubled with the 8,158 verifiable false and misleading claims that President Trump has made since his inauguration (according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database). Or why so many of them acquiesce so willingly to a capricious, vain President with despotic tendencies rather than do the job they were elected to do — namely, uphold and protect the Constitution, serve as a check on abuses of power, and passing legislation that serves the common good. But of course, these important tasks require intelligence –not to mention, an actual spine… Getting back to the last Gallup survey, the bottom five of the least trusted professions are:

Stockbrokers: 14%
Advertising Practitioners: 13%
Telemarketers: 9%
Car Salespeople: 8%
Members of Congress: 8%

The Gallup report makes two interesting notes about the shift of journalists (ranked at 33%) and priests (37%) in the context of recent world news: “Although journalists’ 33% very high/high rating is not outstanding relative to many of the other professions, it marks a 10-percentage-point increase from two years ago and now matches their record high, last recorded in 1977… While journalists have experienced a surge in positive ratings, the opposite is true for the clergy. Gallup has measured Americans’ views of the clergy’s honesty and ethics 34 times beginning in 1977, and this year’s 37% very high/high rating is the lowest to date. Although the overall average positive rating is 54%, it has consistently fallen below that level since 2009. The historical high of 67% occurred in 1985.”

Lets turn back the clock to 1952, when Ed and Patsy Bruce released their hit single, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies to Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Almost two decades later, the song was covered by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and once again the song climbed up the charts. Perhaps it is time to update that song to reflect the sentiments of the country; the revised title should be “Moms Don’t Let Your Kids Grow Up to be Congressmen.” Music to our ears…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
What is the Barnum Effect?
What is the Pinocchio Effect?
There’s A Word for That: Trumpery
Words Related to Trump
What are the Most Common Lies on Social Media?
What is the Big Lie?

For further reading: https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx
https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/21/president-trump-made-false-or-misleading-claims-his-first-two-years/?utm_term=.5cb07338e97e
https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/waylonjennings/mammasdontletyourbabiesgrowuptobecowboys.html


Valentine’s Day by the Numbers: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf cultureDid you hear the story about the wife who sent her husband a text that read: “I’ve just got you the best Valentine’s Day present ever! xox” When he read it, he turned to his colleague at work and said: “I really hope she misspelled ‘Xbox.'” So what is Valentine’s Day without rampant, over-the-top consumerism?

Consider that this year Americans will spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day — and that accounts for only 51% of Americans who actually celebrate it. (Apparently love is on the decline, since last year 55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day.) And sadly, many gifts that will be purchased with the very best of intentions, will end up in the recycling bin: $9.5 million will be spent on unwanted gifts. What a shame — but perhaps an unwanted gift is better than no gift at all, since according to a recent survey, 53% of women expressed that they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive a gift on Valentine’s Day. Can you say “tough love”?

Ironically, about 41% of women in a relationship dread Valentine’s Day (perhaps they are afraid of getting those unwanted gifts or being disappointed by their partner). However, over on the opposite side of the love spectrum, singles really look forward to Valentine’s Day — with good reason — since about 9 million marriage proposals are made on that special day.

So how do Americans say “I love thee?” Let us count the ways:

Total amount spent by consumers in U.S.: $20.7 billion
Average amount spent by consumer: $161.96
Amount average male will spend: $229.54
Amount average woman will spend: $97.7

Amount spent on unwanted gifts: $9.5 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase candy: 52%
Amount spent on candy: $1.8 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase greeting cards: 44%
Percentage of cards bought by women: 85%
Amount spent on greeting cards: $933 million

Percentage of consumers that will purchase flowers: 35%
Amount spent on flowers: $1.9 billion
Percentage of consumers that will take their partner out to dinner: 34%
Amount spent at restaurants: $3.5 billion
Percentage of consumers that will give jewelry: 18%
Amount spent on jewelry: $3.9 billion

Percentage of consumers that will purchase gift certificates: 15%
Amount spent on gift certificates: $1.3 billion

Percentage of Americans NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day: 49%
Of those, 49% of women and 40% of men will treat themselves to jewelry, apparel, or a spa service
Of those 32% of women and 41% of men will plan a get-together with friends or family
Of those about 10% will purchase an anti-valentine’s gift

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written: Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda on Love
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Doublets: Love

For further reading: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/astounding-price-love-valentines-day?


The Singer Who Inspired Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

In his autobiography, King explained that he wrote his speech at the Willard Hotel in Washington the night before the MOW, which was held on August 28, 1963. Prior to going up to his room, he had assembled his aides and asked them for suggestions for the speech. In the past, he had used the dream metaphor. Just two months earlier in June, at a speech delivered at Cobo Hall in Detroit, he said: “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.” The other metaphor he frequently used as the “bad check’, i.e, that the country wrote blacks a bad check, promising liberty and equality, but failing to honor it. Since speakers at the MOW were told they only had five minutes to speak, King didn’t think he had time to use both metaphors. [Later he was told that he could take whatever time he needed.] So he listened to his aides and said: “My brothers, I understand. I appreciate all the suggestions. Now let me go and counsel with the Lord.”

King spent the evening writing the speech in longhand, editing as he wrote, trying to find the right rhythm of words and phrases. Finally, he completed the speech by 4:00 am and handed the speech to an aid so that it could be typed up and delivered to the press. In the speech, King referenced the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. But no where in that manuscript were the words “I have a dream.” 

King was the last speaker of the day. He spoke after Mahalia Jackson sang and then a speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz from the American Jewish Congress. He stepped up to the podium, carrying the manuscript, and read from it. As he reached the conclusion of the speech, he realized that the sentences he had written did not flow. He was supposed to read “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction” and instead improvised a sentence that employed anaphora: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.” And this it was exactly at this moment, that Mahalia Jackson changed the course of one of the most famous speeches in history. Sitting near Kind, she yelled out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” When he heard that, King instantly turned aside from the manuscript and followed his intuition; and he began: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…”

King’s memorable 17-minute speech was powerful, soaring, and emotional. It brough men and women to tears according to eyewitnesses. Half a century later, the speech continues to resonate and inspire; moreover it is considered a rhetorical masterpiece. Political speech analyst, Richard Greene writes: “The speech is perfect in every way. The use of language, the emotional build-up, the penetrating message and the flawless delivery are, plain and simple, perfection.” Today, in a world inundated by tweets, a speech of this calibre is amazingly rare (had it occurred today, thousands would be reducing this remarkable oration to four simple words “I have a dream”) — and it towers above most others because it was delivered with so much conviction and passion. Through the use of repetition (anaphora), rhythm, diction, contrasting metaphors, biblical and historical references, and strong visual images — 70 in all — King crafted a perfect and impassioned speech about racial injustice and the hope for a world of true equality. Greene concludes, “To this day, the emotional impact of this speech reverberates to those who heard it then as well as those who first hear it now. Like the Gettysburg Address, it is a speech with lasting impact.”

So the next time you hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, you can thank Mahalia Jackson for her remark that altered the course of the speech — and of history. And may her act inspire you: when you see that someone needs some encouragement, don’t be afraid to speak out.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King and the Suicide Letter
The Gettysburg Address

The Two Most Important Days of Your Life

For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/opinion/mahalia-jackson-and-kings-rhetorical-improvisation.html


What Is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?

alex atkins bookshelf music“Bohemian Rhapsody,” from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera (1975), is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Despite its tremendous commercial success and influence, it remains one of the most enigmatic, inscrutable songs in the history of rock. It is like the Finnegan’s Wake of rock music. “Bohemian Rhapsody” joins the ranks of other famous chart-topping hits that are sung but never fully understood like Don Mclean’s “American Pie” (1971), Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), and just about any song by Yes. So what exactly is the meaning of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?

The short answer is — we will never know for sure. Freddie Mercury began developing the music and the lyrics in the late 1960s and finished writing it in his home in London in 1975. Although he was very deliberate in its writing, he took all of his secrets to the grave. In an interview, Mercury explains that the song, although very methodically composed, was a bit of a Rorschach test: “Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not?… It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.” 

In an interview promoting Queen Videos Greatest Hits DVD, guitarist Brian May stated: “What is Bohemian Rhapsody about? Well, I don’t think we’ll ever know. And if I knew I probably wouldn’t want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don’t tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way, because the great thing about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put [a lot of himself] into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don’t think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it’s best to leave it with a question mark in the air.”

To that we say: poppycock! A song, like a poem or a novel, should be carefully analyzed to find its true meaning. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined song is not worth listening to. Invariably, critical textual analysis always reveals important clues — whether left consciously or subconsciously — that lead to meaningful interpretations, revealing aspects of the writer’s character, beliefs, and/or life. To find our first clue, let us first turn to Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography (1997). She interviewed him extensively for her authorized biography and got to peer behind the curtain — to fully comprehend the enigmatic musician and his life. She firmly believes that the song represents Mercury’s personal struggle with his sexuality and eventual decision to come out. In 1986, she asked him specifically about this, but he refused to give her a straight answer. However — and one cannot overemphasize the significance of this — Mercury did provide the key to unlock this decades-old musical mystery: he admitted to her that the song was “about relationships.” Bingo! Furthermore, Jones’ belief was also confirmed by Jim Hutton, Mercury’s lover. Soon after Mercury passed away, Hutton told Jones that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about Mercury’s public admission that he was gay.

A close examination of the lyrics will reveal that the song is indeed about relationships — specifically the relationship of Mercury to himself, his spouse, family, and God providing the context for the struggles he faced in deciding to face the music, as it were, to come out. The second clue is that  Mercury “did a bit of research.” The song, like an T. S. Eliot poem, is filled with literary and musical allusions that support the intended meaning of the song.

Let’s begin with the title: Bohemian Rhapsody is a play on composer Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” A bohemian is a person who has unconventional social habits. A rhapsody is a free instrumental composition played in one extended movement, typically one that is exuberant or full of pathos. So from the very start we have some understanding of both the song and the narrator.

The first stanza introduces us to the narrator, who seems to be living a life that is surreal: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality.” He is not sure if it is real or a dream and it’s all happening so fast. With Queen’s meteoric success, Mercury was catapulted from a rather traditional, quiet life to a flamboyant rockstar’s life (filled with the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll). Mercury is living in two worlds simultaneously: living as a straight man while concealing to his family that he is gay. Mercury felt he had to conceal his homosexuality since his parents practiced Zoroastrianism that specifically condemned it. The next lyric employs antithesis: “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,” reflecting his ambivalence. Here poor is being used in the metaphorical (deserving of pity), not literal sense (not having money); in other words, he is saying “although I am deserving of pity, I really don’t need your sympathy.” He has accepted his truth, his fate, and does not need anyone’s sympathy. Expressed another way, he seems to mean “This is my life, this is who I am — don’t feel sorry for me.” The stanza ends with the line “Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me,” revealing that the narrator embraces nihilism, the belief that the world is meaningless, and he doesn’t care where destiny takes him. C’est la vie.

In the second stanza the narrator is telling his wife (here “Mama,” as in Mother Mary, represents Mercury’s wife, Mary Austin) that he has killed a man: “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” But here, the killing is metaphorical, not literal. Mercury is saying that he killed his old self: Farrokh Bulsara (the straight, faithful husband) has been replaced by Freddie Mercury (the flamboyant, gay rockstar). The narrator regrets the pain that he has caused his wife so soon after their marriage had begun (Mercury and Mary had just been married seven years before his first homosexual encounter), fearing that he his thrown all of that part of his life away: “Mama, life had just begun / But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away / Mama, oh oh / Didn’t mean to make you cry.” At the end of the stanza the narrator says “If I’m not back again this time tomorrow / Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters.” The narrator is encouraging his mother (or wife) to embrace his nihilism in order to carry on without him if he continues his life as a gay man.

This is an ideal time to introduce the fascinating parallels between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Albert Camus’s seminal novel, The Stranger, published in 1942. The novel’s protagonist, Meurseult, is a man (like Mercury) who feels like he doesn’t fit in; he is an outcast. Early in the novel, during an argument he kills an Arab man, is convicted and sentenced to death because he feels no remorse for his crime (the prosecutor accuses Meurseult of being a soulless monster). While awaiting execution, a chaplain meets with Meurseult to guide him to repentance and accepting God’s love and forgiveness. However, Meurseult disavows his crime, rejects God, and accepts the absurdity of the human condition. Ultimately, he finds comfort in his indifference toward the world and the meaninglessness of life. The novel ends with Meurseult happily awaiting to meet his inescapable fate at the guillotine: “And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.” It is very possible that Mercury read this book as a young lad or while he was developing the song.

Let’s return back to the lyrics. The third stanza reflects the narrator’s ambivalence: saying goodbye to his old self (heterosexual), his wife, his family and friends, and his fellow band members, in order to accept the inescapable truth: that he is a gay man: “Goodbye everybody I’ve got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.” The ambivalence he feels tortures him to the point that he regrets being born at all, invoking pathos and using the antithetical construction we say in the first stanza: “I don’t want to die / Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” This is a very powerful sentiment that echoes one of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet questions whether he should exist or not: “To be or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”

We now reach the operetta in the fourth and fifth stanzas that function as a sort of Greek chorus, shedding light on the narrator’s psychic and emotional turmoil. Mercury once described this part of the song as “random rhyming nonsense” to his friend, Kenny Everett, a DJ who worked in London. At first glance, just like many nursery rhymes, the jabberwocky of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or any of James Joyce’s inscrutable stream-of-consciousness ramblings, the text may seem like nonsense, but there is definitely meaning behind the madness. Mercury, who mentioned he “did a bit of research,” on this song, clearly chose his words carefully. Let’s break down this section, focusing on key words and lyrics.

The operetta begins with the narrator seeing the shadow of his former self: “I see a little silhouetto of a man.” The next lines, “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango / Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me / Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, figaro, magnifico” suggest that the chorus is challenging the man (calling him “scaramouch,” translated from Italian, means a “boastful and cowardly buffoon;” often featured in Italian comedies, known as commedia dell’arte that flourished from 16th to 18th century) to do something outrageous, thereby shocking the sensibility of his former self, his family and friends, and society at large. The chorus of “Galileo’s” are simply expressions of shock and outrage by others in his circle, as if saying “Oh my God!” Because, the narrator, like Camus’s Meurseult, is a nihilist and absurdist, he doesn’t believe in God. So naturally, he appeals to a man of science, Galileo, a revolutionary (pun intended) who was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church in 1633 for teaching that the Earth is not the center of the universe but actually revolved around the sun. Figaro, of course, is the famous scheming Spanish barber who appears as in two eighteenth-century French plays (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro as well as two operas (The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini and The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In popular culture, Figaro represents an individual that is irrepressible, clever, and defiant of authority. Magnifico is another character from the aforementioned commedia dell’arte. The name is based on the Latin, magnificus, which means “doing great things.”Not surprisingly, these characters — Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico — that are outcasts on some level, resonate with Mercury — not to mention that they rhyme magnificently.

The next stanza takes us into the struggle inside the narrator’s mind. Here we see the dynamic interplay, a passionate debate, between the narrator and the Greek chorus, as it were, building to a crescendo. What is interesting here, is how the narrator progresses from soliciting pity (stanza five) to expressing outrage and defiance (stanza six). The initial line is the narrator trying to elicit sympathy: “I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me.” And the chorus (representing God) jumps in and validates this and wants to spare him from he difficult life he will face once he kills his former self: “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family / Spare him his life from this monstrosity.” The narrator appeals to an indifferent God: “Easy come easy go will you let me go.” But God, will have none of that (Bismillah is the Arabic word for god; literally translated it means “in the name of Allah”); the chorus (God) demands the narrator’s soul: “Bismillah [In the name of Allah], no we will not let you go.” This is quickly countered by an opposing chorus: “Let him go.” This goes back and forth several times. Finally, after a final passionate, and very Italian-sounding appeal, “Mama mia, mama mia let me go” the devil makes an appearance in this escalating confrontation: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” There are two points to make here. First, is that the narrator uses the word “Beelzebub,” the name that appears in the Old Testament (specifically, 2 Kings 1:2-3), for the devil, alluding to the age-old conflict of good (represented by God) and evil (represented by the devil) found in the Bible. Second, the reference to the devil is a very clever allusion to the legend of Faust, that inspired many operas, plays, films, and novels (the most famous is the play Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In the classic German legend, Faust, despite his success and wealth, makes a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and infinite knowledge. (This is where we get the phrase Faustian bargain or Mephistophelian bargain.) Obviously, if he is making a pact with the devil, Faust must abandon God. In popular culture, Faust (or Faustian, the adjectival form) refers to an ambitious person who surrenders moral integrity to achieve tremendous wealth, power, or success. But even more relevant to the song is the concept of a Faustian bargain in the context of psychotherapy. Here, a Faustian bargain is a defense mechanism (or several of them) that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychical survival. So in this context, we can interpret this last line as the narrator saying: “I must face my demon and strike my Faustian bargain with him: I must sacrifice my old self in exchange for the survival of my new self (my real self as a gay man) who will be rich, famous, and revel in worldly pleasures.”

The sixth stanza presents the narrator’s shift from pity to outrage. The stanza functions as a diatribe or rant, marked by an angry defiance to those who judge him harshly. Having struck his Faustian (or Mephistophelian) bargain, he seems to be saying: “I had to do this — don’t hate me for it!” It is ironic that this narrator, who has rejected God, speaks of his punishment in almost biblical terms: “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye / So you think you can love me and leave me to die.” Another way to state this is: “How dare you judge me and punish me for who I am and how I must live my life. You can’t just love me and then abandon me.” He makes a final appeal to compassion (and one can assume he is referring to his wife): “Oh baby can’t do this to me baby.” In other words, he asks: How can you do this to me, Mary?” But the narrator knows this is a bad place; he needs to get the hell out of there — to escape a place of harsh judgment and condemnation: “Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”

The seventh and final stanza (the “outro” in music jargon) begins with the chorus expressing their sympathy for the narrator’s plight: “Oh oh oh yeah, oh oh yeah” as if saying: “yes, of course — you are right, you don’t deserve this, you have no other option to run, to move forward with your life, given who you truly are.” The deliberation — the debate over how to be, how to live — has finally come to its natural conclusion, which the narrator believes should be obvious to everyone. The song comes full circle by returning to the themes introduced in the first stanza: “Nothing really matters / Anyone can see / Nothing really matters / Nothing really matters to me.” The narrator, like Camus’ Meurseult, ultimately finds comfort in the meaninglessness and “the benign indifference of the world” (to borrow Meurseult’s phrase). The stanza ends with quiet resignation: “Anyway the wind blows.” The narrator is resigned to go wherever destiny takes him. 

In short, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reflects Mercury’s personal journey — it is about the personal turmoil he experienced prior to finally coming out. Clearly, he wrote it for himself, as an artistic cathartic exercise. But it was also his gift to the world because the song speaks to so many — and this is why the song endures, resonating so profoundly with succeeding generation. In a larger sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is an inspiring nihilistic anthem about an individual who must accept his truth — to embrace who he is, and live according to who he truly is — regardless of what his family, loved ones, or society want him to be. Indeed, this is not an easy path and, inevitably, it comes with a cost — to the individual (the internal struggles, second-guessing, feelings of isolation, etc.) and to his many relationships (their feelings of pain, betrayal, disappointment, disapproval, etc.). But in an indifferent, meaningless world, Mercury believed, we need to simply discover who we are, accept who we are, and be who we are. So if we had to reduce Bohemian Rhapsody down to its simplest terms, it would be this: live and let live.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
Who is Major Tom in the Bowie Songs?
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
Origin of the Beatles Name
How Rock Bands Got Their Names
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Best Books for Music Lovers

For further reading: Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2015/10/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-queens-bohemian-rhapsody
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/11519641/10-songs-nobody-understands.html
https://www.songfacts.com/facts/queen/bohemian-rhapsody


The Last Message You Receive from Someone Close To You

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe brilliant German writer and poet, Goethe, once observed “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” As the parable in Genesis reveals, we are not meant to travel through the garden alone. One of the great marvels of life is when someone joins us at just the right time — to be able to share the joys of life or help carry a burden or simply be a shoulder to lean on. Whether it is the result of some divine intervention, fate, or coincidence — its impact can be profound and long-lasting. But if life teaches you anything it is this: just as quickly as someone walks into your life, they can leave (to paraphrase the famous Beatles song, “you say ‘Hello’; they say ‘Goodbye’) — and for a variety of reasons: illness, death, suicide, a breakup (friendship or relationship, a profound disagreement, an explosive fight, and so forth. It was this realization that served as an epiphany for Emily Trunko right before she turned 16. She sent out a call for submissions on Tumblr and published them on the blog, “The Last Message Received,” as well as a book of the same title.

Her efforts had a huge impact on her life as well as her readers. In the introduction to her book, Trunko writes: “[The Last Message] has helped bring closure to people who have had to deal with the sudden death of someone close to them, and it has shown suicidal people the shattering impact they actions would have on the the people they would leave behind. It has taught so many people to be more careful with the messages they send, and to remind others how much they care about other people in their lives while they still have the chance to tell them how they feel… I think this Tumblr has made those who read its submissions much more aware and caring.”

The messages and the emotions they evoke are very powerful, and sometimes very raw. They range from elation and hope to sorrow and despair. And some messages are amazingly kind, some are shockingly rude. Here are some excerpts from the book and the blog:

“You have so many personalities and I don’t like any of them.” [written to a person who is bipolar]

“Don’t worry yourself too much about me. I’ll be fine. I have to run, Babe. Only 9 more days.” [individual serving in Libya, two days prior to his convoy being attacked, to his partner; he died a few days later]

“I’m giving up on you.”

“You don’t have to be so fucking dramatic all the time.” [written by a best friend who cut ties with the other friend]

“I love you so much.” [written by best friend; he died two days later]

“Hey! U still wanna hang out?” [written by friend on the day he took his life]

“I’ll fix this.” [written by a boyfriend who left the relationship]

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall
How To Grieve for a Lost Friend 

For further reading: The Last Message Received by Emily Trunko
http://thelastmessagereceived.tumblr.com


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