Four men who loved the city of Birmingham, Alabama asked me to write a book. I look back on that day when I met them in the high-rise office of a prominent attorney. They were all strangers, decades older. They had lived through “pivotal nation-changing days.” Three of them had been in the thick of happenings.
As I sat at the polished hardwood table, I thought possibly they assumed I was a scholar of civil rights because I had recently written a book about the investigation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young black girls in Birmingham in 1963 (Last Chance for Justice), but to my surprise, the gentleman who invited me to that meeting said he had done so because of a totally different book, a historical novel set thousands of years in the past in ancient Turkey (Noah’s Wife). I had to ask him why he thought that qualified me. He said, “If you could write a book about Noah’s wife and make me believe that was what really happened, then you can tell the true stories of what happened here.”
To say I was reticent was an understatement. What they were asking me to do seemed a huge commitment, and so much had been documented about the era, what could I possibly add? Then one of the men sent me his notes about a day in 1962 when he pushed through the double glass doors of The Birmingham News, weary from an all-night stakeout with police, and his eccentric, powerful boss shouted for him to join him for breakfast. What was said at that breakfast changed a young reporter’s life and affected the tangled web of history.
I was hooked.
After the better part of a decade, it is done. Regretfully, two of the fine gentlemen who trusted me to write this did not live to see it. I only hope I have been true to their vision.
Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days is a remarkable look at a historic city enmeshed in racial tensions, revealing untold or forgotten stories of secret deals, law enforcement intrigue, and courage alongside pivotal events that would sweep change across the nation.
What folks are saying:
T. K. Thorne has hit another home run with Behind the Magic Curtain. For five and a half decades we have read accounts of the civil rights era in Birmingham and Selma written by those with a particular ax to grind. Thorne is an excellent reporter, recognizing the nuances that “outsiders” or opinionated writers could not see or chose to overlook. Her reading and especially her interviews over the past several years have been remarkable, allowing her to give far more accurate details than we have seen before. For those who want to know the secrets of what really went on behind the “magic curtain” in those pivotal nation-changing days, days that brought the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, this is an important book to read. —Douglas M. Carpenter, Retired Episcopal minister and son of Alabama’s Episcopal Bishop, C. C. J. Carpenter.
Deeply engaging, Behind the Magic Curtain tells a forgotten part of the Birmingham story, prompting many “real time memories” for me. The lively and descriptive writing brought the characters and settings to life, while diving into the white community’s role in all its complexities. This is a treasure trove of stories about activities and perspectives not well known to the general public. In particular, journalist Tom Lankford’s sleuthing and the machinations of the Birmingham Police Department, along with the risk-averse role of the local newspapers, and a full blown portrait of the inscrutable Birmingham News VIP, Vincent Townsend, make for a fascinating read. —Odessa Woolfolk, educator, community activist, and founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
“T.K. writes like a seasoned news editor, meticulously hunting down facts and laying out the context in a colorful, intriguing way. Behind the Magic Curtain documents many untold stories and faithfully relates my own personal, unforgettable memories of a time of racial transition in Birmingham.” —Tom Lankford, journalist for The Birmingham News
“Novelist and former Birmingham Police Captain T.K. Thorne demonstrates there was more to Birmingham of the Civil Rights Era than Bull Connor, Klansmen, and African-American protestors. Behind that “Magic Curtain,” an ethnically diverse group from downtown to the surrounding bedroom communities of ministers, priests, rabbis, newspaper reporters, and housewives comprised a community belying monikers like ‘Bomingham’ and ‘Murder Capital of America,’ and fighting for justice in the Magic City.” —Earl Tilford, author of Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s
One of the confusing calls today is the one to “Defund the Police.” My thoughts on the subject are seasoned with a career in law enforcement, a master’s in social work, some research, and a couple of decades of contemplation.
Actually defund the police
Some who call to defund police, mean it. They want to restructure society without police. I sincerely hope we figure out how to do this, but at this point in our development as human beings, abolishing police is not a workable idea, particularly in the U.S. Consider recent events in Chicago (where in two weekends, 34 people were killed and 186 were shot); consider also Seattle’s failed no-police protest zone experiment; and the violence in our own communities.
Abolishing police would stop police abuse issues, but it would create a vacuum that could be filled with violence. Even a country with minimal crime like Norway has a police department.
Replace the department
For others, defunding the police means they want to dismantle the particular law enforcement system in place as completely dysfunctional and reassign it. A most unlikely place did that. Camden, NJ, in 2010 had the highest crime rate in the country. They faced a $14 million budget deficit and had to lay off half their police force. What happened? Arrests in 2011 dropped by half, burglaries increased 65%, and the murder rate skyrocketed. So that is one lesson about defunding police.
Here’s the other side of what happened. In desperation, Camden dismantled their (union represented) police department and merged with the county, putting more officers on the street for less money. The change also gave them an opportunity to instill new cultural values in the department, significantly reducing excessive use of force complaints, and crime rates dropped 42% compared to a drop of 4.9% in U.S. (in the same time period.)
Redefine the job and reallocate resources
But for the most part, the meaning of “defund the police” means a city reviewing what it wants and expects from its police, what it values and believes is effective in terms of where it puts resources.
I say this is long called for—both for government and for police agencies themselves. I’m not saying the Birmingham Police Department, in particular, needs an overhaul. First, I’ve been too long removed to comment on that, and second, it was an honor to have served there with many extraordinary men and women doing a difficult and demanding job, some of whom gave their lives.
But there are systemic issues with the culture of law enforcement. Even as a rookie, I was confused by the militaristic model of training we received (picture red-faced sergeants yelling at recruits, making them drop for push-ups, etc.) A military model works for . . . um, the military, which actually has an “enemy” and relies on instant, unquestioned obedience. That kind of role model is reinforced by peer pressure and instills in police recruits an expectation and demand for obedience and a respectful attitude from the public, which adds to the (human) difficulty of maintaining stoic responses in the face of the opposite behavior. It is also not conducive to the type of independent and sometimes creative decision-making required of police officers on the street.
Officers are trapped in a system that measures and rewards them for writing tickets and making arrests. Think about that. Number one: Neither interactions are helpful to developing relationships. Number two: Officers tally up their tickets and arrests for evaluations and promotional decisions. So, in reality, officers chase an unknown number—a type of reward system that creates anxiety and competition, ill feelings in the public, and overfills our jails and prisons. Obviously, that is also driven by what society defines as criminal.
Add to that the systemic dysfunctions that create a breeding ground for crime, like a dearth of available, affordable drug rehab, mental health support, housing, and predatory lending, limited services for the homeless, food deserts, lack of arts and enrichment in schools, mentoring and tutoring needs, high speed internet, transportation, job training and placements—only to name some of the challenges facing a large portion of the population, mostly the people who both need and fear the police the most.
Then blame the police for not being able to solve the problems that arise from society’s dysfunctions. Throw in the perception and sometimes reality of police abuse, and it’s a no brainer to realize that much of the public has no trust for police or that police feel they are made “the enemy” and tasked to do an impossible job.
Studies show it is not the number of police or the number of arrests that affect crime. An avalanche of research in criminology is linking declining legitimacy with increases in crime. When Camden lost half its police force, it may not have been the lack of arrests per se that drove crime, but the perception that there weren’t enough police. People virtually stopped calling the police for misdemeanor infractions.
Predatory violence can increase because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not report incidents to the police—the primary reason that many homicides go unsolved and perhaps a reason behind the explosion of shootings in cities like Chicago during a pandemic. They don’t believe the police can or will be able to stop it.
Trust is key
Let’s talk about lack of trust. How do you trust someone you only have negative interactions with? How do you address the fear of police? For me personally, the reality of that hit home with two events—the killing of George Floyd and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. As a Jewish person, I appreciated the outpouring of sympathy and outrage at the massacre, but it did not make me feel safe. And I can understand that no amount of white participation in protesting and support makes black people feel safe.
And how do police build relationships if they don’t have the time to do anything but answer calls or if they are busy making traffic stops and arrests to go on their monthly reports? I’m not saying those things should not be in law enforcement’s toolkit, but the majority of responses society needs from police officers are better addressed by a mindset and training as problem solvers with crisis intervention and de-escalation skills. Try to fit that into a military training model.
That said, even the military has recognized that many of today’s soldiers need multiple skill sets and the trust of the community in dealing with warfare in areas where the enemy is indistinguishable from innocent civilians. That takes a maturity, training, and value set reinforced by standards, expectations, and peers. The latter is the hardest to tackle but not impossible.
Police need to be screened, trained, evaluated, and importantly—paid as professionals doing an extremely difficult job. Yes, Camden put more officers on the street by paying them less, but their turnover is very high. That means they are investing in people who don’t stay. It helps payroll, but in the long run it will cost the city. Paying police more by itself doesn’t solve the issues, either, but without that, you are looking at reduced applicant pools, both in quality and quantity or, as in Camden, police who stay long enough to get trained and then leave for other jobs or other careers. That is actually an ongoing problem plaguing departments throughout the country, including Birmingham.
In particular, taking street officers away from areas of high crime would be counterproductive and abandoning those who need them the most (see Camden, NJ). The city needs to invest in solving its problems, and that is going to take funds and dedication to do something hard. In a time when revenue is decreasing, that also means how to do more and be effective with less.
Utilizing trained civilians could reduce the need for sworn officers in many positions. Working the front desks at precincts, as assistants in detective offices to deal with paperwork, contacting victims, etc. (possibly freeing some detectives to return to street duty). Why do we need armed officers to respond to accident scenes to take reports for insurance companies? Trained citizens could do that or even respond to theft/burglary or other after-the-fact calls where the major requirement is filling out a report.
Birmingham was an early leader (1970’s) in hiring social workers to follow up or to respond with officers to calls of domestic violence, mental health, child abuse, etc. But there are only 5 positions to cover the city 24/7. That program should be expanded, along with the resources they and police officers need to support their efforts to address community problems.
Technology can be employed. Why do police have to stop vehicles to give tickets? Yes, sometimes drugs or weapons are found that way, but is it worth it in terms of the negative association of citizens with police and the opportunity for harm to both inherent in even routine traffic stops? We are quite capable of having cameras and computers monitor traffic violations and issue appropriate tickets.
Perhaps it is time to reexamine the possibility of sharing costly facilities like jails, dispatching, training, and vehicle pools and to evaluate law enforcement hiring and training—a topic unto itself. Monies saved can go toward addressing the communities’ needs.
But it shouldn’t stop at police departments. A reevaluation of where monies are going throughout city government is called for, to weigh the value of administrative costs and to shift people and resources where they are needed—more police on the streets, more investments in schools and youth, drug rehab, job training, and mental health services to start. With access to these resources, police can actually be problem-solvers, have alternative strategies to arrest, and can build trust in the communities they serve, and that will make their jobs easier and more rewarding and our communities safer.
Change is hard. It is much easier to keep the status quo. The pandemic has created a tough financial time for cities in addition to the pressure of calls for reform. We need to do more than just survive it. We need to use the opportunity to take a hard look at what we do, who we are, and who we want to be.
T.K. Thorne, a retired Birmingham police captain and former director of downtown’s CAP, explores murder, mayhem, and magic in her newest novel, House of Rose. Her books include award-winning historical novels, Noah’s Wifeand Angels at the Gate, and her nonfiction, Last Chance for Justice, details the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church-bombing case. Her forthcoming nonfiction is Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days. She writes from her mountaintop Alabama home. TKThorne.com
The past few months, heroes have toppled under the sledgehammer of truth. I’m not talking about the confederate statues; I’m taking about personal heroes. Among the fallen are L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz books, who advocated exterminating native Americans; John Wayne, who made disturbing remarks about blacks and Native Americans: J.K. Rowling, who has made remarks some interpret as transphobic; and Dr. Seuss’ —of all people—whose cartoon art included racial stereotyping. Classics like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Gone with the Wind are coming under scrutiny for racial stereotyping.
This is really nothing new. Gertrude Stein, an American poet and literature icon, sympathized with France’s Vichy regime (a puppet state for the Nazis). Ezra Pound, a major American poet, became a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II. T.S. Eliot, a famous British essayist and poet was an elitist, writing that “a large number of free-thinking Jews is undesirable.” He did not espouse tolerance or even traveling widely and thus, presumably, exposing oneself to other cultures.
One of the real angsts about the historical book I am writing now is that one of my heroes stumbles on his pedestal. When he visited Birmingham sometime in 1963, his brother set them up with prostitutes (both were married). I worried about putting in that chapter, but the story was true and germane to the book. I grappled with whether to cut it or leave it. In the end, I decided it was true, and the truth was more important to tell. Is he still a great man? A man to be followed and listened to?
I stopped drooling over actor Sean Connery when he said he thought it was “absolutely right” to hit women when they wouldn’t “leave things alone.” The “father of our national parks,” John Muir, had no place for indigenous peoples in his “pure” wilderness and was clear about his racist opinions about them and about blacks. Bill Clinton led record job creation but sullied the office of president with his shenanigans. John F. Kennedy was just as bad in that department, yet his words still inspire. Nixon created the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and opened China, but also dishonored the office he held. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Abraham Lincoln plainly said he had no intentions of freeing slaves. And the paragraph above regarding prostitutes refers to Martin Luther King. Even Mahatma Gandhi, surely an icon of peace and civility, said the Jews under Hitler’s heels “should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife.”
What, indeed, are we to do? Everyone has flaws. No one is perfect. If you think someone is, you just don’t know about theirs. And one person’s “flaws” is another person’s “strengths of character.” Judging people is simultaneously harmful (“Judge not, lest ye be judged”) and necessary. We can’t choose a better path without acknowledging and turning away from ideas and behavior that will harm our social, cultural, and personal evolution . . . or our world.
Should we separate the person from their creations (art, writing, leadership) or do we turn away and disregard their accomplishments or creations because of the creator’s flaws? Is it a matter of strict lines in the sand? Should we make allowances for time, context, and culture? Is justice about punishment or mercy? Does it matter if the theft was a loaf of bread and the thief was hungry?
I suspect dealing with this is akin to the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, turning from what is true, or acting like something didn’t happen. It is about letting go of the grip wrongs have on us; letting go of our own emotional angst and moving forward.
So maybe the answer is not to ban books or art (because ideas are next) or even to shun the art, works, or accomplishments of the flawed (because ultimately that is everyone), but to be aware and negotiate the complexity. What young children with forming ideas are exposed to may need to be more strictly scrutinized than what adults read. It’s important they be exposed to material that reflects the diversity of the world. Confederate statues are still art and reflect historical people and events, but do they belong in public squares as “heroes?” Can we appreciate the beautiful and charming aspects of Southern culture while remaining clear-eyed about the racism that dominated that way of life? Can we admire the stunning culture of the Japanese, while rejecting the blood thirst of feudal rulers and war mongers? Can we accept and understand that structural racism can exist along with good, decent police officers?
This is hard. We are not wired to do this very easily. We are wired to want simple choices—good/bad, dangerous/not. We want (need?) our heroes to be perfect. And if they aren’t, we want to put our hands over our ears and shut our eyes. But they aren’t perfect. We aren’t. Our country isn’t. We can be patriots and criticize. In fact, we must if we are to continue making things better and stay true to the ideals that many have given freedom and blood for. At the moment, we are so polarized, that one side cannot imagine saying anything good about the other, no matter what it is. Picking a path through this jungle is hard. It is much easier to stay divided, to cheer only for our team. But life is not like that. Life is change. It is complex and contradictory, even our heroes. We must make decisions as we pick our way through stony, thorn-filled paths. We must make choices. Sometimes they are obvious, but often they are not clear or perfect.
Sometimes they will just be the best we can do.
T.K. is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.
Receive this blog in your email when a new essay, story or whatever is posted by putting your email address under “Follow My Blog” in the upper right section of this page. Want a heads up on news about TK’s writing and adventures (and receive two free short stories)? Go Here.
In the beginning of my novel,House of Rose, my police officer heroine shoots a man in the back. I deliberately placed Rose in that situation, because it put her in trauma, and that is how character is built. I wanted readers to experience that from her perspective, to be uncomfortable. Having to pull the trigger is not a comfortable place. I am a former police officer, and, like my fellows, I always dreaded having to make such a decision and having to live with it—right or wrong.
My fictional shooting is a circumstance very far from the blatant lynching of George Floyd, which—along with a dark cloud of other racial encounters and shootings—have stained the badge that so many wear proudly and with honor. For the first time in my memory, law enforcement officers have broken their “code of silence” and stepped forward to voice their outrage, some to walk and pray with protesters.
I am proud of those voices, but I understand they do not make black people feel safe.
I am not black and not trying to imply I understand what it feels like to be, but I am listening and trying to imagine that and to relate it to my own experiences. I am Jewish.
Recently, I watched a documentary on the growth of anti-Semitism in the world, including the U.S., and it awoke in me something that I try to ignore in my daily life, an underlying fear of being different and what might happen to me or those I love because of who I am and what I believe. The outpouring of sympathy and expressions of horror at the Tree of Life massacre did not make me feel safe either.
How are we not beyond this? I yearn for there to be no need for police to have to make awful decisions or even to be armed, only to perform their highest calling—solving problems, protecting and helping people. I yearn for soldiers to put down their weapons and say, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.”
I also research and write about history and know we have moved the needle significantly from the past, but we have not left the darkness behind. It is a chasm looming before us. I fear we are on a precipice as a country and world.
What can I do?
I am a writer, so I am doing what I do—writing about my pain, confusion, my passion for justice. Sometimes I do that through my characters, but sometimes I just have to struggle for the words in my own voice.
Most people assume, as a writer, that I’m eating up the hours a little virus has bequeathed to us by WRITING. They would be wrong. Yes, I am working on a novel, but it’s in the editing stage. That means I’m calling on some craft skills, but mostly just plain old boring, repetitive checking for errors.
This piece is the first thing I’ve actually tried to pull from the creativity well, and I have no idea where it will go. But that is okay. I give myself permission to ramble and see if anything worthwhile will arise. (I encourage you to do the same.) So here we go.
I’m fortunate to live on several acres of property surrounded by beautiful woods. Our nearest neighbors are cows. For the ten years before we moved here, I lived in the city, and tried to grow on a tiny patch of land what I felt was the most gorgeous of plants—a wisteria vine. For whatever reason, the one I planted with hopes of it gracefully climbing the crosshatch wood panel on the side of my front porch and spilling grape-like clusters of blossoms—never bloomed. When we moved, I dug up a piece of the root and planted it in my front yard, determined to keep trying. The ground was so hard, I ended up cutting off most of the taproot and throwing a small piece of it into the woods on the side of my house.
Thirty years later, that little piece of discarded taproot has been . . . successful. That is like saying a virus replicates. It did bloom, draping glorious purple curtains from the trees.
At first I told it, “Okay, as long as you stay on that side of the path.” It didn’t. Then, I rationalized, as long as it stayed behind the fence in the backyard. (I didn’t actually go in my backyard very much, being busy with life stuff.) But I looked one day after covid-19 hit, and it had eaten over half of the back yard. I couldn’t even walk to the fence line. Two huge trees went down, strangled, and too close to the house.
Wisteria roots undermined large pine
It was time for war.
This engagement, like those in the Middle East, will never end. Wisteria sends out shoots underground and periodically forms nodes that may change the direction or shoot out its own horizontal and/or vertical roots, so each section can survive independently and pop up anywhere. Of course, I have the most pernicious variety, the Chinese kind that takes over the world (challenging even kudzu, which fortunately, hasn’t found my house yet.)
My first priority was to save the trees near the house. The vines were so thick at the base, no clippers would suffice. I girded myself with a baby chainsaw and determination. It hurt to cut into those old, twisty vines, to destroy something so beautiful, but the trees were more important. I imagined that with each cut, the tree could feel the release from the vine’s embrace, the reprieve. I was taking life, but I was giving it too.
I sprayed the growth in the yard and pulled up (some of) the root systems. If you want a mindless, exhausting, frustrating, impossible task—pull up established wisteria roots. It will take your mind off anything, even a pandemic.
One side benefit of the fallen trees was that a little more light found its way into the yard, and I decided to try growing vegetables. Another feature of my backyard is an old fashion clothesline with rusty steel posts. Periodically over the past decades, I’ve thought we should take them down as they are eyesores, but another part of me (the part that worried what young girls with flat stomachs would do during the famine) worried that we would have a pandemic one day or some kind of disaster that would require actually hanging clothes out to dry, so I left them, as well as the abandoned rabbit hutch in the far corner. We would be ready, if not attractively landscaped. And worse case scenario, maybe the hutch, in a pinch, would hold chickens.
I thought my creative well was dry, but looking at those old steel posts, the pile of wisteria roots, the vines I had pulled up and cut down, and a package of bean seeds that has been sitting in a drawer for a few years, something started stirring. Beans need something to climb. One of the fallen trees had taken out the actual wire lines of the clothesline, but the poles were set in cement. They will be there when I am dust. The pole surface might be too slick for a bean to curl around, but maybe—
And so, as a product of WWI (Wisteria Wars Episode I) and covid-19, I found that the outlet for creativity isn’t always words on a page. If my beans grow, they will be beautiful and feed me, and if they don’t, I will at least have a couple of funky art pieces in the backyard.
Foreground: Metal pole with wisteria roots and vines. Background: logs from tree felled by wisteria, the carcass of another felled tree, and old rabbit hutch.
T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her. Receive this blog in your email when a new essay, story or rambling is posted by putting your email under “Follow My Blog” in the upper right section of the page. Want a heads up on news about her writing and adventures (and receive two free short stories)? Click on image below. Thanks for stopping by!
The woman—dark hair with hints of auburn, the back scooped up in an invisible comb—dances down the aisle of the grocery store between the boxes of cereals and the baking goods. Pushing her cart, she sways to the store’s muzak, oblivious that the young girl beside her slows her pace and pretends to study the canned soups to put as much distance as possible between them.
I didn’t want anyone to suspect the dancing woman was my mother. It didn’t matter that I knew no one personally at the grocery store. Other than the two of us, the aisle was empty, at least for the moment. I held my breath, praying that the music would change to something less jaunty, and she would lose her enthusiasm for kicking out a leg or bouncing from foot to foot.
Even so, beneath my embarrassment, down in the dark, secret earth of girlhood, a seed now nestled—Would I ever dare to do such a thing—a brazen dance of joy in inappropriate places without thought of who was looking? Though my feet dragged, my heart glimpsed a possibility where one dared to be and to express that being.
In childhood, I dared this. I would sit in the middle of a busy sidewalk to examine a dandelion or an ant or cry in front of company to protest something I didn’t like. As a teen, I lost this freedom, submerging it to a craving to be like others, to be accepted, to be the daughter of someone who walked their cart down the grocery aisle.
My mother addressed the world with humor (“I like to generalize without specific knowledge.”) and quiet wisdom. She was the fixer, whether it was “kissing better” a scraped knee or advising how to handle a frisky boyfriend. When her father died, she comforted me, not shedding a tear on her own behalf, at least in my presence. I can’t remember her being upset or even angry. How can that be? In my memory she danced through life, beaming light on all those in her path.
Between making meals, making dresses, and shuffling me to ballet classes, horseback riding classes, and the library, she did significant things for the community. Those things earned her posthumous recognition, but from my self-centered perception, they were peripheral to her main job of “mother.”
Now that I am well into adulthood, and she is gone, I realize that she did not have the perfect, carefree life of my assumptions. I can only imagine her pains, but I learned from her that pain does not have to define my life—that I get to do that. I can dance down the grocery aisle.
T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her. Receive this blog in your email when a new essay, story or rambling is posted by putting your email under “Follow My Blog” in the upper right section of the page. Want a heads up on news about her writing and adventures (and receive two free short stories)? Click on image below. Thanks for stopping by!
A mouse propelled me into crime. I was twelve years old, and I didn’t like what I was seeing . . . or smelling. Most sixth grade science classes use frogs to dissect, but for whatever reasons, our teacher decided on mice, little white mice to be exact, with pink noses, tiny paws, and bright eyes. The mode of demise was to drop them into a large, acrid jar of formaldehyde and watch them drown in the awful stuff. Then we got to cut them open, a nasty business, but by then they didn’t feel anything.
It was the jar thing that got to me. It never occurred to me to confront the teacher. I was way too shy. Most of the time, I felt disconnected from my classmates who viewed me as a bookworm, and therefore, suspect and strange. I failed cheerleading in the second grade, not able to comprehend why I was waving a pompom and jumping up and down. Reading and horses were my passions. The lone friend from third grade who fit that bill had been sent to a private school.
Boys were simply alien creatures, far beyond my ken or reach. Not so for the girl who sat behind me in science who opened my astonished eyes to the existence of a new world. Science was definitely not Sheryl’s forte. She majored in boys. In exchange for science homework answers, she let me read the carefully folded, passionate letters from one of her multiple boyfriends. One, I recall, left me breathless, if not from the content, simply that he wrote it in the middle of the night inside a closet by candlelight.
Sheryl was as disgusted at the mice, both the dissection and mice in general, as I was impressed and awed by her romantic exchanges, but I didn’t have the chance to plot with her. Instead, I debated internally with my discomfort, eyeing the box that held more victims waiting for torture in the following class periods. Not acting would make me an accomplice to more killings. But stealing was wrong, right? I balanced on the edge of a moral dilemma.
With the ringing of the bell signaling the end of the period, I made my decision. The teacher stepped outside into the hall to take up his monitoring duties. I dithered with my books and papers, nothing that would arouse suspicion since I always seemed to be the last person ready to go anyway. The rest of the class poured out, eager for the next period (the end of which they would just as eagerly await). Heart kicking in my chest, I casually walked behind the teacher’s wooden desk, squatted, opened the case, snatching the first ball of squirming white fur that came to hand.
The rest of the day, I sweated, certain my theft would be uncovered, but the plump little guy curled up in the pocket of my sweater and slept. I didn’t dare share my crime with anyone, even Sheryl, maybe especially Sheryl, who was a node in the school communications network.
When I finally got home with my illegal gain, I officially named him Copernicus—after the 16th Century astronomer who proposed the radical theory that the planets revolved around the sun—giving homage to his science origin, and put him in an old birdcage. My father, as usual, was oblivious, and any objection could have been easily overcome by claiming mother had already approved, a tactic I had perfected on both of them. But my mother only raised her eyebrows at the new pet. I glibly lied, telling her the science teacher had purchased too many and didn’t mind me taking one home, and she didn’t ask too many questions.
Copernicus spent happy days crawling from one hand to the other, his tiny paws tickling; or curling up at the back of my neck under my hair for a nap while I read; or exploring the vast landscape of my bed. My dog, Samson, a collie mix, was fascinated, watching him down his long nose without blinking as long as the mouse was in eyesight, seeming to understand that any overt move would break the spell. Gradually, Copernicus seemed to lose his fear. At once point, they actually touched noses. I watched Samson almost as carefully as he watched the mouse, but Sam never gave any indication of aggressiveness. In fact, I think he was in love.
Then one day, things went terribly awry.
Copernicus was missing from his cage. I saw movement in the corner under some scraps of newspaper he had torn from his bedding. To my surprise, it was a nest containing several tiny, naked things, and I realized that Copernicus had been Copernica all along. With the births, she had lost her girth and squeezed through the bars of the cage.
Alas, I found her under the bed. Cause of death was a mystery. Other than being wet, there was no sign of any wound or broken bones, not even her neck. She was just dead. She had to have crawled there on her own, because Sam was too big to fit under the bed. I suspected at some point, however, he had put his mouth on her, perhaps to try and bring her to me. She may have had a heart attack or a problem related to giving birth. I will never know and only hope it was a better death than drowning in formaldehyde.
The episode was life changing. Although I liked science, I opted for Latin to avoid having to kill and cut on animals. The following year, I required major surgery to take out an appendix that had grown around my spine. It took two weeks to recover, and I did poorly on a Latin test. I did well in Latin, but it wasn’t because I could translate. Instead, my classmates and I were the recipients of a fellow student’s translation copies. Not sure where he got them and highly doubted he translated them himself. He would never say. In any case, since we knew in advance what excerpts of Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars we would be tested on, I simply memorized the hard parts and was a consistent “A” student in class. The hospitalization and recovery period, however, cut off my access to the translations.
Whether the teacher knew what was going on or just put my poor performance off on my illness, I never knew. For whatever reason, she offered me an independent reading project as extra credit, which I eagerly agreed to. The book was A Pillar of Iron by Taylor Caldwell, a historical novel about the Roman philosopher, orator, and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who stood up to the corrupt politicians of his day, refusing to be bought off or to dishonor his beloved country or abandon his ideals. He was assassinated. The story and its ending, which occurred while I was sitting on my bed—still my favorite reading spot—sent me into a bout of hysterical weeping that scared even my little sister. She ran upstairs for mother, who was not available. Reluctantly, I am sure, my father responded to the crisis.
Sitting on my bed, he approached the problem logically. “What is wrong?”
I was unable to answer.
“What is wrong, baby? Whatever it is, we will fix it.”
More crying. Probably snot running.
Becoming more and more concerned at my tears, my gasping for breath, and inability to respond as to the source of the problem, my father’s worry was evident. Being an engineer by education and mental alignment, he was ill equipped to handle his daughter’s distraught emotional state. Finally, he gave voice to the worst disaster he could think of, the nuclear option. Although I had just turned thirteen, he asked, “Are you pregnant?”
I shook my head and managed to say in halting gasps, “They . . . killed . . . him!”
Appalled that the worst scenario he imagined might, in fact, not be the worst, that we might be dealing with a murder, possibly in my presence or, at the least, of someone I knew, he demanded, “Who? Who was killed?
“They . . . killed . . . Cicero!” I sobbed.
“Cicero? Who is Cicero?”
Eventually, I was able to explain, but I never forgot the power of words and story. It sparked within me a desire to be a writer, a flame that has continued to burn for many years. Now it is a habit and passion I doubt I will ever forsake. And if not for a mouse, I might have never have realized it, or perhaps I would have chosen another path, hopefully not a life of crime, but you never know.
Still, the mouse episode remains an illustration of life’s complexity and mystery.
Copernica had good days, days she might not have had. But maybe she was lonely without her fellows, in spite of her rescue and Sam’s attentions. I also don’t know why she decided to try a jailbreak. Perhaps she wasn’t ready for motherhood. Who can know the mind of a mouse? But she died because of me. I wasn’t able to save her newborns. I couldn’t decide if I had done the right thing, stealing her and being the proximate cause of her death. With all good intentions, sometimes things go wrong. Does the end justify the means or nullify the intent? Is a good deed still good if the consequences are not? Is a crime a crime, or is it—as everything else seems to be—entirely relative?
I’m still pondering, a fact that works its way with regularity into my writing.
T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, roam wherever her interest and imagination take her. Receive this blog in your email when a new essay, story, or rambling is posted by putting your email under “Follow My Blog” in the upper right section of the page. Want a heads up on news about T.K.’s writing and adventures (and receive two free short stories)? Go HERE. Thanks for stopping by!
In police work, tragedy was a daily affair. I learned how to erect a professional wall between my personal emotions and what I encountered—abuse, rape, murder. Without those walls, I couldn’t have functioned effectively. I couldn’t take every abused child home. I couldn’t even ensure the abuser I put in jail would stay there and never hurt another. I survived by focusing on my job and trying to do it the best I could, while staying alive myself and trying to ensure the same for my fellows.
I didn’t change the world. Did I affect lives? I think so.
The tragedy in our world is still a daily affair and still overwhelming—war, famine, disease, disaster. I still have barriers because I can’t absorb the hurt of every other human in a personal way. For years, I couldn’t bear the thought of the Holocaust and refused to visit a Holocaust museum. Frankly, I feared fully acknowledging the weight of what had happened would disintegrate me. What if I couldn’t put myself back together? (Eventually, I visited the amazing Yad Yashem–The World Holocaust Center in Israel and I survived.)
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have security for our basic needs can be assaulted by guilt and confusion when we’re confronted with stark poverty, rampant disease, the results of natural disasters, or abuses humans visit upon one another. We are told by TV ads that a cup of coffee a day can buy health for a child on another continent or a new life for a pitiful dog in a cage. How do I drink my coffee without a crush of guilt?
Far more often than not, I simply shake my head. There is a label for this—collapse of compassion. We simply cannot emotionally process the ills of the world.
n The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama–perhaps the world’s model for compassion–recalls an event where he was in severe pain. On the way to the hospital, he passed a man on the side of the road who was clearly in worst straits than he. The lesson he took from this was one of perspective on his own pain, but when I read this passage, I wondered why he didn’t stop and help the man, despite his pain. Wouldn’t that have been the truly compassionate thing to do?
The Dalai Lama must see people worse off than he every day. He also hears of the world’s wrongs. I imagine at some point he too has collapse of compassion. It is a survival mechanism.
We tend to perceive and process everything, including our values and morality, through the lens of circumstances and group psychology. The death of thousands or millions is an in-absorbable statistic that leaves us bewildered at how to exercise compassion in the face of the enormity of the pain or the impossibility of changing it. So we turn a blind eye. According to Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in a recent NYT article, “It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”
But we can identify with the pain of one person, especially if circumstances present a doable solution that doesn’t cost us “too much.” If we discover a homeless child or dog on our doorstep, we are more likely to open our door than send money to a far-away charity of possibly dubious nature or to be a “drop in the bucket” of a crushing need. If the Dalai Lama had not been rushing to the hospital, he might have stopped to see if he could help the man on the side of the road. When the media covers stories about a single person’s tragedy, we are more primed to react, to actually do something.
Our values of compassion are deeply rooted in our cultural and evolutionary heritage, but they are called on in a way that is outside the framework of their evolutionary origins. For most of our history, we have lived in small communities that could absorb the needy stranger or widow, but today we are exposed to and confronted with problems on a global level—refugees from terror and economic scarcity at our borders, victims of warfare, disasters of fire, flood, wind and earthquake. All of these have been with us for millennia, but we have previously only faced them on a local level. Now we are aware (bombarded) on a daily basis, of what is happening in the world and with that comes a seemingly overwhelming burden of responsibility, so we switch it off.
Our first commitment is to our own well being and security. It makes no sense to let ourselves or our children starve in order to feed the homeless. My father told me often to remember the story of “the richest man in Babylon.” He taught to give yourself (save) the first 10% of whatever you make and that preparing for the future security for yourself and your family is a noble and worthy goal.
On the other hand, religious leaders have warned about clutching all of what we have too tightly (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”) And they have provided a practical response in the 10% tithe rule. In Judaism, this is expected of everyone, even the poor, because giving is such an important part of becoming a fully-realized member of the human family. It is not important how much, just that we do it.
The conflict and guilt and helplessness we feel at tragedy is human. Our walls are also human. Our inaction is human. Our actions to fix the things we can is human. How we choose to respond is an individual decision. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. You may volunteer coach. You may run for political office. You may be a philanthropist. You may speak out about the ills of the world or your community. You may, like the Dalai Lama, focus on being a joyful, compassionate human being and sharing how to do that. You may pick up trash along a river bank. You may write stories.
Just find your way.
A retired police captain, T.K. has written two award-winning historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, filling in the untold backstories of extraordinary, yet unnamed women—the wives of Noah and Lot—in two of the world’s most famous sagas. The New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list featured her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, which details the investigators’ behind-the-scenes stories of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing case. Coming soon: HOUSE OF ROSE, the first of a trilogy in the paranormal-crime genre.
She loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. T.K. writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, Alabama, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap. More info at TKThorne.com. Join her private newsletter email list and receive a two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.”
When you think about it, the act of reading is an astonishing accomplishment. It’s a complex mix that involves:
• Recognizing symbols
• Relating them to sounds and spoken language
• Extracting meaning
And we’ve only been reading for a short time (5000 years)—too short for the brain to have evolved for that purpose. The conclusion of scientists is the area of the brain (the left occipital-temporal cortex, if you’re interested) that seems to coordinate this amazing process has reorganized itself to take on the task.
We’ve known from people who have experienced brain damage, such as from a stroke, that the brain can rearrange itself, a process called neuroplasticity. When one area is damaged, new areas can take on a task that was previously relegated to another area. Researchers have long thought that this flexibility lessens with age. But this region changes even in adults who are learning to read, showing that “this area is responsive to learning throughout life.“ [Italics mine.]
If you are—[clearing throat]—beyond the stage of youth, as I am, that is very cool news!
But wait, there’s more!
Reading a novel, according to cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis, is more than an entertainment or distraction. It’s “an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.” In other words, when you read a novel, you become the person you are reading about in a very physical way.
Another neurologist Gregory Berns, says, “neural changes associated with physical sensation and movement systems [happen while people are reading and] suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. . . . We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
So there’s a reason why when you’re reading that good book, you loose awareness of the present. Your mind is putting you in the world of the story!
Studies have found that learning new skills, including reading or a second language creates new white matter in the brains of children and adults. White matter acts as a kind of fast neural subway, connecting different regions of the brain to one another. It plays a role in language ability, memory, and visuo-spatial construction. Diseases of white matter are linked to cognitive and emotional difficulties. (By the way, other activites also result in increases in white matter functioning, including meditation, weight-resistance training, and practicing a musical instrument.)
Since the beginning of time, stories have allowed us to test run situations and experience emotions without the real consequences of living them. Reading may even make us more human, enriching our skills of empathy. One study found that readers of literary fiction excelled at tests involving understanding other people’s feelings.
Reading makes us generally more intelligent. In fact, recent scientific studies have confirmed that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.” Reading increases fluid intelligence—the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns. It also helps with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence.
I feel the honor and responsibility of writing something like Last Chance for Justice, the nonfiction story of the Birmingham church bombing case, an incident that changed the path of civil rights around the world. But sometimes I wonder if I am making any kind of difference when I write fiction, and perhaps fellow novelists feel this too. Now we know. As a writers and storytellers, we are helping to make minds healthier, humans more human, and advancing the intellectual evolution of our species. That’s good enough for me!
T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch. Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with a dog and a cat vying for her lap.
More info at TKThorne.com. Join her private newsletter email list and receive a two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.”
Who knew? The women’s movement to win the vote in the United States (which didn’t happen until 1920) began with book clubs!
In my life, “feminism” has been a word often expressed with a sneer, the struggle for equality seen as an effort to shed femininity and be man-like. Burn your bra at the peril of rejecting your womanhood. But my role model, my mother, was as feminine as they come and yet stood toe to toe with men in power. She never finished college, having to quit to care for her ill father, but she continued to learn and read and surround herself with other women who used ideas and knowledge to challenge the status quo, a legacy that began long ago.
Mandy Shunnarah recently wrote about research she did on this subject in college, sharing how the turn-of-the-century women began with classical ancient history and gradually became informed about political and policy issues of the day. The clubs created opportunities for connection and community and provided a conduit for organization and action. Undoubtedly, progressive organizations like the League of Women Voters, which formed in 1920, were an outgrowth of those clubs.
My mother, Jane Katz, was a longtime League member and a lobbyist for the state League. I have memories of her sitting at her electric Smith-Corona and typing away at tedious lists that tracked status and votes on legislative bills of interest to the League—education, the environment, constitutional reform, judicial reform, ethics reform, home rule.
I remember her taking me to a site to show me what strip mining actually looked like when a coal company was finished ravaging the land. She worked hard for the Equal Rights Amendment, which had as much chance of passing in my state (Alabama) as a law against football. I followed her to the state legislature while she talked to white male senators about why a bill was important and I will never forget how they looked down at her condescendingly. It made me angry, but she just continued to present her points with charm, wit, and irrefutable logic. The experience turned me off to politics, but gave me a deep respect for my mother. I know she would be saddened that many of the issues she fought for have yet to come about, but she would be proud of today’s many strong women’s voices speaking up for the values she so believed in and fought for. She and my grandmother began my love of reading and books. Today, it’s estimated that over 5 million book clubs exist and 70-80% of the members are women.
A special childhood memory of my parents chuckling over a New Yorker cartoon my father cut out and showed to friends—Two stuffy businessmen are talking quietly. One says, “But she is a mere woman!” The other replies, “Haven’t you heard? Women are not so mere anymore.”
I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. My mother died decades ago, and sometimes I feel guilty not following in her footsteps. But I think she would have been proud that the women in my books are not “mere.”
It is a gift and a closing of the circle connecting me with my mother and all her predecessors to know the heritage of feminist activism—the striving for a society where women’s thoughts, ideas, and work are equally respected—began with a group of women, perhaps a cup of tea, and a book.
T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch.
Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list.
T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with a dog and a cat vying for her lap.
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