CASE STUDIES IN ADOPTION

Note: Unless otherwise specified, the photographs below are for illustration purposes only and are not connected to the case studies provided. Examples and links to specific adoption agencies are provided for reference and not as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular agency.

AdoptiveFamilies.com

The concept of adoption has a generally positive aura. Indeed, it’s easy to find articles like Why Adopt? 23 Reasons to Adopt a Child (amerianadoptions.com). But frankly my experience of adoptions via family and friends is a mixed bag. 

The good news for writers: good, bad, or unclear outcome, adoptions are fertile ground for characters and plots.

Case 1: Desire to Adopt a Stepchild

When my husband and I married, he was a widower with a three-year-old daughter. I (foolishly) thought that by that marriage, I became his daughter’s mother. Wrong! To be her legal parent, I had to adopt her. We lived in Upstate New York, and at the time a child with a living biological parent could be adopted only if the biological parent gave up his/her parental rights.  The upshot was that my hubs signed away his parental rights and then we both adopted her!

This was an incredibly successful adoption. I told my parents, my husband’s parents, AND our daughter’s maternal grandmother that any and all of our children had to be treated equally. We subsequently had two more daughters. Words like step-mother, half-sister, etc., never crossed anyone’s lips—and I don’t think crossed anyone’s mind. When her elementary school class made family trees, hers had three branches: her biological mother, her father, and me. 

Writers note: consider such a case that did not go so well.

Case 2 A, B & C: Desire to Help a Friend or Family Member Who Isn’t in a Position to Raise a Child

2A – the biological mother of two children was murdered, and neither of the fathers was known. The maternal grandmother and her husband adopted the grandchildren. Although a financial burden, no one seemed to regret the decision.

2B – the biological parents of the child were drug addicts. The paternal grandmother went to court to get custody and eventually adopted the grandson, who grew up to be an admirable and ambitious young man.

2C – the biological parents were unmarried teenagers, not financially viable, and not psychologically well balanced enough to care for a special needs child. The paternal grandmother first won custody and then adopted her. The adopted daughter struggled through special education classes, therapy, and at age eighteen, vocational training for a sheltered work environment. The child/young adult was a constant and severe stress on the paternal grandmother and her husband’s marriage.

Writers note: consider that a biological father came forward in A; consider how the relationship between the biological parent and the grandparent might evolve in cases B & C.

AFamilyForEveryChild.com

Case 3 A & B: Desire to Give a Child Born in Another Country a Chance to Thrive

3A – the adoptive father had been a U.S. soldier who served in Viet Nam. He and his wife had three children (sons) but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. In the event, the Vietnamese orphans were so weak and sickly that the international agencies weren’t placing them. They suggested adopting a Korean orphan, and that is what they did. As adults, the children have good relationships. Although differing in political perspectives, the adoptive parents and daughter are emotionally close.

3B – the parents decided to adopt a child from a country where the majority of the population is of a different race, practices a different religion, and speaks a different language. The boy was four years old when he was adopted. The relationship between the parents and the child never settled into a comfortable family pattern. When he turned eighteen, the adopted child returned to the country of his birth and changed his name back to the one he’d had in the orphanage. The parents have not seen him since and have only occasional online contact.

Case 4 A & B: Desire to Choose the Child’s Gender

4A – a Caucasian couple had two sons. Wishing for a daughter, they conceived several times over the years but all of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages. They chose to adopt a mixed race (Irish and African American) baby daughter. The adoption was simply a part of the family structure. The child and her biological mother saw each other occasionally. The birth mother being known, there was quite a bit of info available about health issues, for example. The adoptive parents made a conscious effort to expose their daughter to African American culture and experiences.

Writers note: count the ways this might go awry as the adopted daughter goes through teenage rebellion, or is the only non-white face at family gatherings. What if one or both sons marry women who are more or less racist?

4B – a couple had two daughters. After eight years of repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, the wife had a medically necessary hysterectomy. The husband wanted a son “to carry on the family name.” They didn’t want to wait two years to adopt an infant and so applied to adopt a ten-year-old boy. A month younger than the elder daughter, he was in the same class in school as the younger daughter because his biological parents had never enrolled him in school. There was a “trial year” before the adoption could be finalized. It quickly became apparent that the boy shared no interests with the husband, nor his need for achievement. The wife resented the burden of a third child while her health was so fragile, and was fearful that the boy would replace the daughters in her husband’s affection.  The daughters acted to protect the boy from their mother. The boy’s attitude was “hunker down and get by,” because the home he’d been adopted into was much better than his previous situation. At the end of the year, both the couple and the boy agreed to finalize the adoption. In the meantime, the boy had been in school for a year under his birth name. When the husband asked whether the boy wanted to change his name, the boy said he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be any more a member of the family one way than the other. His name wasn’t changed.

Writers note: what are the long-term implications???

Case 5 A & B: Due to Infertility or Other Reasons, a Parent Cannot Have a Biological Child

5A – After several years of marriage and extensive fertility treatments, a couple was unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.  The adoption wasn’t easy because of the adoptive parents’ ages. They decided to adopt a brother and a sister together, although they’d been told that the children were developmentally behind their ages. The adoptive mother was a psychologist and attributed that developmental lag to their early lives. As the children grew, the boy appeared to be average or a little below in intelligence. The girl suffered microcephaly. The marriage failed. The children remained with the adoptive mother. As the boy developed, she couldn’t handle him and ended up paying a lot of money to enroll him in a military school. As the girl grew, she became ever more aggressive and defiant and was expelled from school. The mother tried therapy, including residential therapy. The girl was living in a residential facility and was on her way to see a psychiatrist (as she had requested), when she said she didn’t want to go to that hospital, jumped from the back of the van, broke her neck and died immediately. The boy married and had a child and had a relationship better than ever with the adoptive mother.

5B – the adoptive mother was a single woman who wanted a child but had no desire to give birth or to involve an unnecessary man. She adopted an infant from South America and raised the girl to be Catholic, fluent in Spanish, and knowledgeable of her native country’s history and culture, in accordance with the biological mother’s wishes. The girl grew up surrounded and supported by her adopted mother’s parents and siblings. She did well at home and in school until about halfway through high school. Then, she got involved with drugs, was in and out of abusive relationships, had three children by unknown fathers, and is now serving time while her adoptive mother has custody of the children.

Writers note: where/how might these events have developed differently?

HowtoAdopt.org

Case 6 A & B: The Couple “Just Wants To”

These two will be treated together because they are related. The women are sisters, the twelfth and thirteenth children in the family. They were exceptionally close growing up. For unknown reasons, neither had a child and they and their husbands each adopted a son. The older sister’s adoption was a great success. The son thrived, both academically and professionally, married and had a daughter they named after his adoptive mother. The younger sister’s adopted son was a ne’er-do-well. He was sporadically employed, had many brushes with the law, driver’s license revoked, time in jail, drank heavily, tapped his mother for financial support, and in the view of the extended family, exploited her financially to her detriment. She never rejected him. And that was a source of tension and distance between the formerly close sisters.

Writers note: fertile ground here! Throw in Parkinson’s or some equally debilitating disease? Why not have children of their own, when all their older sisters had done so?

AdoptConnect.com

Adoption Process

The actual process of adoption varies widely among agencies and countries. However, there are some fairly consistent requirements:

  • The adoptive parent(s) must demonstrate financial stability, a permanent home, psychological maturity, etc.
  • If the adopting parents are married, there is usually a minimum amount of time they must have been married before being allowed to adopt.
  • If there are other children in the home, there is sometimes a requirement that a minimum number of years separate the biological children from the adopted children.
    • Many adoption agencies recommend not adopting a child who is older than the oldest biological child so that birth order is not disrupted.
    • The youngest child in the home is often required to be at least two or three years old before the adopted child will be placed.
  • Parent(s) must be at least eighteen years older than the adopted child.
  • Most adoption agencies perform home visits and individual interviews with each member of the family. Some require character references from friends or employers.
  • Because of the different needs of adopted children, especially older adopted children, many agencies require prospective adoptive families to attend training seminars.
  • Guides for raising adopted children and helping them adjust can be also be found online.

Summary: in my experience, adoption typically isn’t about helping a mother who (for whatever reason) must give up a child. Nor is it about giving a loving home to a child (stranger) who needs it. As a writer, consider the motives of the the adult(s) seeking to adopt. And consider all the ways those motives might be frustrated.

GOOD FEET, BAD FEET

Red feet, Blue feet!

How much thought have you given to your characters’ feet? And shoes? Feet and shoes tend to go together, and both can be valuable as character details, plot devices, and sources of conflict. But let’s start with the basics. Are bare feet good or bad? Yes!

Health Concerns

The Upside of Bare Feet: 

  • Uninhibited flexibility, greater strength, and mobility of the foot.
  • Some research suggests that walking and running barefoot results in a more natural gait, allowing for a more rocking motion of the foot, eliminating hard heel strikes, generating less collision force in the foot and lower leg.
  • Many sports require going barefoot: gymnastics, martial arts, beach volleyball, and tug of war.  Rugby in South Africa is always played barefoot at the primary school level. Other sports have barefoot versions: running, hiking, and water skiing.
  • People who don’t wear shoes have a more natural toe position, not squished together.

The Downside of Bare Feet:

Hallux valgus, bunion
  • Losing protection from cuts, abrasions, bruises, hard surfaces, and extremes of heat or cold.
  • Constantly being barefoot increases likelihood of flat feet, bunions, and hammer toe.
  • Because feet are so sensitive, toe locks and striking the bottoms of the feet are often used as punishment.

Climate and Weather:

  • With no environmental need for shoes, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, and various African nations have historically gone barefoot.
  • Even when it isn’t necessary, people in such climates often wear ornamental footwear for special occasions.

General Symbolism

  • Baring one’s feet shows humility and subjugation.
  • Going barefoot symbolizes innocence, childhood, and freedom from constraints .
  • Bare feet are often a sign of poverty.
    • The assumption of ignorance and poor hygiene often accompanies the poverty of bare feet.
  • From Roman times on, footwear signaled wealth, power and status in most of Europe and North Africa.Shoes that are impractical or inhibit movement often signal enhanced status, such as Italian chopines, Chinese “Golden Lotus” bound feet, armored German sabatons, Polish crakows, and everything worn by Victoria Beckham.
  • Forbidding shoes marks the barefoot person as a slave or prisoner under the control of others.  Keeping prisoners barefoot is common in China, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, India, Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and North Korea.

Cultural Aspects

Religion:

  • Some religious sects take a vow of poverty, including obligatory bare feet.
  • Many Buddhists go barefoot as a reminder to be concerned for Mother Nature, to lead people in the path of virtue, and to develop the Buddhist spirit.
  • Roman Catholics show respect and humility before the Pope by kissing his feet. 
  • In Judaism and some Christian denominations it is customary to go barefoot while mourning.
  • Anyone entering a mosque or a Hindu temple is expected to remove his or her shoes. Stealing shoes from such a place is often considered a desecration.
    • Hindus show love and respect to a guru by touching his bare feet. 
    • Lord Vishnu’s feet are believed to contain symbols such as conch, fish, and disc.
  • In many spiritual traditions, body and soul are connected by the soles of the feet.

Europe:

  • Wearing shoes indoors is often considered rude or unhygienic in Austria, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Belgium.
  • In Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, wearing shoes indoors is expected.

Asian Countries:

  • Showing the soles of the feet is seen as an insult because the feet are seen as unclean (“You are lower than the soles of my feet”).
  • Shoes are seen as dirty and so are removed before entering a mosque, temple, or house.

China:

  • Take your shoes off when entering a house.
  • The practice of foot-binding began in the 10th century as a sign of wealth and beauty. It was outlawed by Empress Dowager Cixi in 1902 (though this was largely ignored) and successfully outlawed by Sun Yat-Sen in 1912.

Japan:

  • Never cross your feet in Japan.
  • Students take off their street shoes when entering school and wear uwabaki, soft-soled clean shoes, to the classroom. Street shoes are stored in special lockers by the school entrance.

Thailand:

  • A prisoner must be barefoot in court during penal proceedings.
  • Because the feet are the lowest part of the body, they are considered filthy.
    • Showing the soles of your feet is extremely rude, a big taboo at any time.
  • Remove your shoes before entering a school, temple, or home.
  • In some houses or schools, inside slippers (never worn outside) are allowed.

India:

  • Shoes are considered impure, so it is customary to remove footwear when entering a home or a temple.
  • Charanasparsha is a very common gesture of respect and subservience made by bowing and touching the feet of the (always superior in age and position) person being honored.

Australia:

  • It’s common for people, particularly young people, to go barefoot in public. In some regions, students attend school barefoot.

New Zealand:

  • Many people, of all races and cases, conduct daily business barefoot.
  • Barefoot is more common in rural areas and some seasons.

South Africa:

  • Walking barefoot in public is common among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas.
  • The National Guidelines on School Uniform lists shoes as an optional item.
  • Barefoot people are common in public, shopping malls, stores, and events.

Canada:

I assume everyone in Canada wears these all the time.
  • Take off shoes when entering a home.
  • Elementary schools require students to have indoor shoes and provide a place to store outdoor footwear. Outdoor shoes are worn in high schools.
  • Some medical facilities require patients to remove shoes for reasons of cleanliness.
  • Office workers usually wear indoor shoes in winter, outdoor shoes in summer.

United Kingdom:

  • Mostly in rural areas, children and teenagers are accepted.
  • Some schools encourage barefoot participation in indoor and outdoor physical education.
  • The National Health Service encourages people to go barefoot or wear open-toed sandals in hot weather to avoid sweaty, smelly feet.

United States:

  • Many children in rural areas, and/or those in poverty go barefoot.
  • More commonly, people wear shoes both outdoors and indoors.
  • Businesses that don’t prepare or serve food can determine dress codes that prohibit or allow bare feet.

Miscellaneous:

  • Fairies and magical creatures in several cultures leave no footprints. Checking for footprints is a common method of identifying supernatural creatures and avoiding mischief.
  • Before a baby learns to walk, stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl up. After the baby learns to walk (and for the rest of their pedestrian life), stroking the bottom of their foot will cause their toes to curl down.
  • Ancient Egyptian believed that stepping forward with the left foot trod out evil so the heart could proceed.
  • The foot chakra is one of the most important, as it helps pass the Divine Energy to Mother Earth, making powerful grounding .
  • Having a foot fetish or kink means being sexually aroused by feet or certain parts thereof, such as toes, arches, ankles, etc.

Bottom line for writers: What are your characters’ attitudes and behaviors regarding feet and shoes? And why?

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!

BRACE YOURSELF! IT’S FRIDAY THE 13TH!!

Every year has at least one Friday the 13th, but more often two or three. The longest possible interval between Friday the 13ths is fourteen months, the shortest is one month. Today is the second in 2019. Interestingly, the 13th of any month is slightly more likely to fall on a Friday than on other days of the week.

Superstitions about Fridays and 13s emerged centuries ago, certainly by the Middle Ages, maybe even in Biblical times. The Biblical connection is the belief that there were 13 people present at the Last Supper. According to the Hebrew calendar Passover began on the 14 of the month of Nisan that year, meaning the seder (the Last Supper in Christianity) was held on the 13 of Nisan; Jesus was crucified the next day, which was a Friday. Since then, bad things that happen on Friday the 13th have garnered particular attention.

Friday the 13th is widely considered bad luck in Western superstition. According to The Sun, UK Edition

  • 55% of Brits consider themselves superstitious. 
  • 1 in 6 believe those days pose the greatest risk of bad luck striking.
  • 22% worry what might befall them on these days.
  • In the U.S., 25% are superstitious, with younger people being more so than older people.
  • According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, NC, 17 to 21 million people in the. U.S fear this day.

The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has held kansallinen tapaturmapäivä (Accident Awareness Day) on Friday the 13th every year since 1995. Public awareness campaigns encourage people to pay more attention to their surroundings and fix potential hazards around the home, workplace, and on the road.

The fear of Friday the 13th is paraskevidekatriaphobia. The word was coined by Dr. Donald Dossey who told his patients that “when you learn to pronounce it, you’re cured!” Of course, people are superstitious about many things. Suffice it to say, any of the bad happenings are worse on Friday the 13th.

  • Walking under a ladder
  • Breaking a mirror
  • Having a black cat cross your path
  • Spilling salt
  • Opening an umbrella inside the house
  • Stepping on cracks
  • Lighting three cigarettes with one match
  • Leaving a white tablecloth on a table overnight

Superstitions about Fridays and about the number 13 long preceded the connection of the two, which dates from about 1869.  Fear of the number 13 is “triskaidekaphobia.”  The ancient Code of Hammurabi omitted a 13th law from its list of legal rules. Many hotels have no floor labeled 13, ditto seat rows in airplanes.

In Hispanic and Greek cultures, the bad luck day is Tuesday the 13th. On the other hand, in Italy the bad luck day is Friday the 17th.

My relatives sometimes said, “If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all!” Not that that’s particularly relevant, but it’s been running through my thoughts as I wrote this blog.

Bottom line for writers: create your own Friday the 13th disaster, or a character who is irrationally fearful of Fridays, 13s, and Friday the 13ths.

VEGETARIAN, PESCATARIAN… HUMANITARIAN?

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and frequent consumer of baby noses, bellies, fingers, and toes.

Amid the recent discussions on this blog of ways to dispose of a human corpse, both legal and not-quite-so-legal, one rather significant possibility has been left out: chow down! The technical term for eating humans is anthropophagy. I’ve heard that livers, in particular, are quite tasty when served with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Warning: The images originally associated with this blog were disturbingly graphic and so have been replaced with pictures of babies eating toes and eating baby toes. Mostly.

Warning: The embedded links provided in this article may include details that will turn you vegetarian. Follow links at your own discretion.

Don’t Do It!

Cannibalism would fall under the category of illegal methods of body disposal. Even when eating someone doesn’t require killing them first, the act itself is usually covered under laws against corpse desecration or disturbing the dead. Multiple justice systems have recently had cause to issue rulings on the subject.

  • German courts declared that Armin Meiwes was guilty of manslaughter for killing and eating Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes in 2001. Because of video evidence that Brandes had volunteered and willingly consented, Meiwes was sentenced to only eight years in prison.
    • Public outcry and a legal appeal caused the court to retry Meiwes in 2006, at which time he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
    • Armin Meiwes is now a vegetarian.
  • Detlev Guenzel was convicted of a very similar crime in 2015, also in Germany. He met Wojciech Stempniewicz in a cannibal chatroom, they discovered their shared interest, and Stempniewicz met Guenzel in Hartmannsdorf-Reichenau for the express purpose of being killed and eaten.
  • Arif Ali and Farman Ali were arrested in 2011 for eating a human corpse dug up from a nearby graveyard in Pakistan. Shortly after being released from prison in 2014, the two were arrested again for digging up a corpse and making curry.
  • During the Holodomor Famine in Ukraine in 1931-1932 and the Siege of Leningrad of 1941-944, many people were reported to have turned to cannibalism of the dead in the face of mass starvation. Some are even reported to have cut off and eaten parts of their own bodies to survive. Survivors were afterward charged as criminals and executed or sent to gulags.

In addition to being illegal, eating humans is not actually very healthy. Humans can have all sorts of nasty, wiggly things crawling around in our flesh. Hepatitis, HIV, and The most well-known is the kuru virus, which is found in the human brain and transmitted through consumption.

Human flesh is also comparatively lacking in nutritional value, having far fewer calories per pound of meat than boars or bison. The effort required to subdue and dismember another person for food is enough to make all but the most avid anthropophagist give up and go for the supermarket. Eating already dead corpses carries the risk of catching whatever disease killed them.

If you want to be absolutely sure the meat is safe and no one will object, you could always try munching on yourself (except in Idaho, where consuming human flesh of any kind is illegal). Autocannibalism requires chopping off bits of yourself or possibly sucking out bits off yourself.

Does this count as autocannibalism?
  • Make sausages with your own blood.
  • Fry meatballs in your liposuctioned fat.
  • Pair up with a buddy to fry and eat each other on live television.
  • Boil and eat fingers severed in a vehicle accident.
  • Invite friends over for tacos made from your own foot.
    • If you want to know what people taste like without chopping off your own foot, the taco chef has provided a detailed description.

Everyone Else Does It!

According to anthropologist (not to be confused with anthropophagist) William Arens, rumors of culturally sanctioned cannibalism have been greatly exaggerated. In 1979, he published The Man-Eating Myth, arguing that culturally accepted cannibalism is not nearly as wide-spread now or in history as people assume.

Evidence of whole societies of people eating each other relies heavily on statements from one group telling researchers that those weirdos next door will gnaw your face off. The next-door neighbors killed children and ate them, so they must be invaded. Their armies devoured fallen enemies, so be sure not to lose in battle. With the exception of funerary rituals, documented cases of socially accepted cannibalism are few and far between.

Even the word “cannibal” was created as a form of linguistic propaganda. It comes from Columbus’s misunderstanding of the Carib people’s name for themselves. Columbus reported that the Canibales were rumored to eat human flesh, and the name stuck. When Queen Isabella declared in 1503 that non-cannibalistic tribes could not be enslaved, all those reports of “those guys over the hill who have Soylent Green picnics” became very useful. Suddenly, just about any indigenous population of an area Europeans wanted to colonize was absolutely guaranteed to be cannibals.

Eating the bodies of criminals during a famine is just good resource management.
Engraving by Theodor de Bry

The fact that Europeans, up through the early 20th Century, practiced medicinal cannibalism adds a gruesomely hypocritical twist to this bit of etymology. Powdered skulls in your beer cured headaches. Drinking blood would balance your humors. Rubbing human fat on a wound might speed the healing. If you wanted to get fancy, you could even try bloody marmalade made by Franciscan friars. None of this was considered cannibalism, of course. Only uncultured savages and starving people were cannibals. Taking pulverized mummy pills with your morning tea is just following doctors’ orders.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

If you want to write about cannibals, make sure you check the facts first. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians argue amongst themselves about how common it is or ever was. Hic Dragones, a press and organizer of conferences on “the weird, the dark, and the strange” held a Cannibals Conference Programme in 2015, with presentations from religious scholars, historical dietitians, pathologists, and psychologists. There are a lot of facts, many of them contradicting each other, but cannibals make an excellent addition to murder or horror stories. No holiday is complete without cannibals!

Cannibal Claus is a real movie. This picture was not photoshopped or altered in any way.

INSIDE A MIND WITH PTSD

Today’s blog is written by a fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Among the many odd things I’ve done in my life, one that has had the most lasting impact is being a linguistic and cultural ambassador posted to a country that shall remain nameless here. Because of various regional disputes, a massive prison outbreak, less-than-polite national elections and regime changes, and a general culture of aggressiveness, I found myself living in conditions that were much more dangerous than I’d been led to expect.

When I eventually returned home, among the souvenirs and keepsakes I brought back with me, I found in my luggage a serious case of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). As Vivian’s blog is for writers and writing, I thought perhaps a guided tour inside the warped and broken mind of a person with PTSD might be of interest to you all.

Please keep hands and arms inside the cart at all times, and don’t feed the negativity gremlins as we go past.

Very Important Disclaimer: Neither Vivian Lawry nor this guest author are psychiatric professionals or are qualified to provide medical assistance. The information contained herein is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes in any way, shape, or form.

This is basically what the inside of my mind looks like.
(It’s actually the Soul Cairn from the Dawnstar plug-in to Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim by Bethesda.)

Before the ride begins in earnest, you can look to your left for some basic information about PTSD. The most common association people have with PTSD is of veterans of military combat, but it can result from many different experiences, including natural disasters, abusive relationships, assault (sexual or otherwise), prolonged insecurity, traffic collisions, and so on. People can even develop second-hand PTSD from witnessing these events in other people’s lives. A patient may develop PTSD immediately after an event, but sometimes symptoms don’t appear until well after the event itself.

Common symptoms of PTSD. As soon as I can cultivate a substance abuse problem, I’ll have BINGO! (That’s how it works, right?)

With all of these possibilities, there are loads of ways in which the inclusion of a character experiencing PTSD can enrich, complicate, drive, or drive, or even resolve your writing. There is a lot of information available about the causes and effects of PTSD, but remember that each case is different. Every person will have different triggers, coping mechanisms, involuntary reactions, etc.

You may notice the cart shaking violently as we enter the tunnel; this is simply the result of uneven neural pathways, nothing to be alarmed about.

As a writer and a reader, I’ve found myself thinking of ways in which my warped thoughts and behaviors could fit in with other common narrative techniques. I have also found some absolutely infuriating stories out there in which a character has a traumatic experience (usually rape or sexual assault) simply so the hero can come to the rescue or to establish a villain as a villain… and victimized character goes right back to skipping through the tulips. Don’t be that writer!

If you look out on either side of the cart, you may be able to make out (through the erratic strobe lights and general gloom) a few of the ways common behaviors of characters with PTSD could be very useful in your writing. Please remember that these are only glimpses from one mind and do not necessarily reflect every patient. Also, hold on to the lap bar as there are some sharp curves coming up.

Unreliable Narrator: What I see and hear is always filtered through the PTSD in my mind. If a story is told from the point of view of a character with PTSD, this is a good way to demonstrate the disconnect from reality. If another character is getting information from a character with PTSD, it could skew everyone’s opinions and affect the plot moving forward.

What it feels like to walk down the street.
  • Social interactions are a minefield of side-stepping physical attacks (handshakes, hugs, pats on the back).
  • Random strangers only ever approach me with violent intentions, such as petting my dog, asking me to reach something off a high shelf, or walking past me on a narrow sidewalk.
  • People waiting in parked cars are obviously armed, most likely on the lookout for potential victims.
  • Anyone who stands in a doorway must be trying to block the exit or prevent escape.
  • An approach from behind must be someone trying to sneak up on me, and anyone who surprises me from behind is an attacker and will be punched.
  • This isn’t helped by chronic sleep deprivation giving me the same symptoms as early-onset Alzheimer’s: How can I be trusted to provide accurate information when I lose time and forget everything?

Mistaken Motivations: Objectively, I know there is nothing wrong with mental illness, nor should there be any shame attached. Still, I try to hide it or play it off as no big deal. As a result, family, friends, and strangers all have reason to assume my coping behaviors are something very different. Having a character reveal midway through or near the end of a story that their actions were motivated by coping mechanisms could be a plot twist, a clue for investigators, a reset of other characters’ attitudes, or plenty of other ways of adding narrative interest.

  • Friends frequently ask if I’m cold because I can’t stop shaking.
  • Constantly scanning for threats and possible exits sometimes makes me look like I’m trying to find someone or looking for an excuse to leave a boring conversation.
  • Being hyper-vigilant in general makes me look twitchy, itchy, over-caffeinated, or paranoid, depending on who is providing their opinion.
  • My brother thought he’d done something to offend me when I repeatedly moved away from him or left the room when he entered.
  • After I repeatedly panicked and cancelled plans at the last minute, many friends thought I was just blowing them off.
  • Arriving late to social gatherings, hiding in the corner, and leaving early have all led acquaintances to assume I’m too stuck-up to mingle.
  • To make it through particularly important events that I cannot miss, I’ve sometimes taken extra doses of anti-anxiety medication. My slurred speech, unfocused gaze, less than ideal balance, and inability to follow conversation looks an awful lot like I’ve shown up to the baptism or wedding drunk as a skunk.
  • I escape to the bathroom a lot when things get overwhelming, sometimes for extended periods of time. Most of my family now thinks I have severe digestive issues.

Affects in My Life: In order to be diagnosed as a disorder (the D in PTSD) a patient must have symptoms severe enough to disrupt their ability to live a normal life. A character who develops PTSD midway through a narrative would almost certainly show changes in behaviors. These are some of mine.

This is perfectly normal.
  • Chronic insomnia and nightmares: Years later, I still sleep in a separate room from my spouse, with the lights on, with distracting or soothing music playing… and I still manage to wake the household at least once a month by screaming in my sleep.
  • My ability to concentrate and complete tasks on time severely impacted my job. Twice, I responded to a coworker trying to get my attention by panicking and attacking them. Going into the office grew increasingly difficult as it became harder to leave the house. I am now unemployed.
  • Weeks at a time go by when I cannot leave my house, even to go into the backyard. I feel threatened every time I open the door.
  • Side effects from different medications I’ve tried have included weight gain, headaches, heartburn, memory loss, drowsiness, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam. These could also be examples of mistaken motivations!
  • I no longer participate in hobbies I once did, especially anything that involves leaving the house or interacting with other people.
  • Suicide and suicide attempts are very common among patients with PTSD.

Anxiety Attacks, Panic Attacks, and Flashbacks: These can be triggered by almost anything, depending on the person and the situation. Smelling cigarette smoke, walking on an icy sidewalk, being in a room of people speaking another language I only halfway understand… any of these can send me spiraling. Being under stress increases the chance that something will hit that switch.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’d like to remind you at this time that motion sickness bags can be found under your seats and to hold on tightly.

It doesn’t look quite as cute when I do it.
  • Anxiety or Panic Attack: It’s really bizarre to be terrified and not know why. Why is my heart racing? Why can’t I breathe? Why can I not stop screaming? When I have an anxiety attack, I don’t think rationally but I can speak and respond to people around me. When I have a panic attack, it feels like I’m about to die. I can’t feel anything but the absolute terror that completely takes over my body. Usually, I am able to leave a situation when I feel one of these about to happen so that I can mentally implode in the peace and quiet of a public urinal.
  • Flashback: These are even more bizarre. Anxiety attacks often segue into flashbacks. I am completely unaware of my surroundings and respond to threats that are long gone. I’ll switch languages to talk to people who aren’t there; I’ll be able to smell the food or feel the cold from specific memories. Sometimes, I have flashbacks that aren’t tied to precise events, more an amalgamation of similar threats that get lumped together in my head. It’s very embarrassing to come out of it and realize that I’m hiding behind a clothes rack in Target, desperately fighting off the attack of a stiff coat sleeve.

Treatment Options: There are many different types of treatments for PTSD, with varying degrees of accessibility, cost, success, and side effects. I’ve tried just about everything: some worked, some did not, some worked at first and then stopped. I can’t stress enough that every person will respond differently to different treatments. The information here is simply what undergoing the treatments felt like for me.

He still can’t change the printer cartridges.
  • Therapy Animal: My dog trained himself to be a therapy dog because he was just that awesome. Before I was eventually laid off, my boss let me bring my dog into the office with me. He learned to impose himself between me and anyone getting too close to my personal space. When I had anxiety attacks, he’d put his head in my lap and nudge my hand until I pet him. Focusing on the feeling of his fur, his cold nose, his super stinky breath worked to calm me down and remind me that I was safe. He passed away in April, and it felt like going through all the trauma again.
  • TMS (Trans-Cranial Magnetic Stimulation): It felt a bit like sitting in the dentist’s chair while a woodpecker tapped on my head. I went every day for three months, and the only side effect was a minor headache when I first started.
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): My eyesight is so bad that I couldn’t do the actual eye movement part of it; I held a buzzer in each hand and felt the vibrations in alternating hands at different speeds. In each session, I relived particularly traumatic events over and over while the therapist guided me through sense memories and varied the speed of the buzzing. By the time the hour was up, I was usually an exhausted, damp, shaking mess running to the bathroom to vomit.
  • Medication: I think by now I’ve tried every different medication type on the market. I can’t even pronounce most of them and have to stutter and hope at the pharmacy. Most gave some relief for a little while and then stopped working.
    • There is now a way in which doctors can send a sample of your DNA to a lab, where people in white coats and shiny goggles can magically determine which medicines will or won’t work for you. I have no idea how they do it; I assume it involves cauldrons and eyes or tails of newts.
  • Ketamine: I was very hesitant to try this method because there have been so few long-term studies. When I started, I went in every day for a week and a half. After that, I went in every three to four weeks depending on how the doctor thinks I’m doing. Ketamine treatment is available through aerosol or intravenously. I sit in a comfy chair with a needle in my arm for about an hour while geometry loses all meaning and everything becomes either fascinating or hilarious. Everything in the universe swirls in front of my face, and the feeling of my hair is the most amazing sensation I can remember. According to the nurse, I tend to wax rhapsodic about how much I love every person who comes through the door. For some reason, they won’t let me drive afterwards!
  • Healing Crystals/ Salt Lamps/ Essential Oils: I had a lumpy pillow, a pink wall, and everything tasted like lavender.
  • PTSD is expensive!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through the mess inside my head. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before unbuckling safety harnesses. Be sure to gather all personal items and take them with you as you exit down the ramp to your right. Don’t forget to check the photo booth for a hilarious souvenir memento of your trip. You can also find resources for actual help; as I’m sure you remember, this has just been an example of some personal experiences for your writing toolbox.

FUNNY FIXATION OR OCD?

OCD, like love and hate, is a label thrown around pretty loosely, often for humorous effect. People with fixations on organization, precise routines, hygiene, perfectionism, etc. are frequently referred to as “acting so OCD” or “showing their inner OCD.” Marketing campaigns turn OCD into a punchline to sell products like Obsessive Christmas Disorder pajamas or Khlo-CD organizational apps.

Hilarious, no?

There is a significant difference between people with odd quirks and people who have a diagnosable mental illness. Both can be useful characters for writers, albeit in very different ways. Characters who have fixations, quirks, rituals, or habits that interrupt a scene or cause awkward situations can be a source of amusement for writers. Characters who actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a source of tension, tragedy, or demonstrated compassion for writers, but the actual mental illness is not amusing.

Confusing retail workers is a sign of having too much time on one’s hands rather than having a debilitating mental illness. (Disclaimer: This blog is not affiliated with any retail chain or candy brand.)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions that s/he feels the urge to repeat over and over). The line between having a personality quirks and a mental disorder can be hard to find, but it generally comes down to quality of life. Dr. Steven Brodsky points out that actual OCD will “impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress” in the lives of those suffering from it.

  • Obsessions—repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images—are private, and thus no one knows about them but the person unless they’re talked about. These uncomfortable thoughts cause anxiety.
  • Compulsions are typically (but not always) public, as is any behavior that happens the presence of others. The repetitive behaviors are an attempt to deal with the anxiety the obsessive thoughts create.

Could you benefit from an O and/or C character? Although people/characters can exhibit symptoms of obsessions, compulsions, or both, thoughts and behaviors typically occur together. See the end of this blog for specific prompts.

Detective Adrian Monk from Monk, Physicist Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and Chef Monica Geller from Friends

Consider Monk, The Big Bang Theory, and Friends. All three shows feature characters who exhibit signs of obsessions and compulsive behaviors, usually to the sound of the laugh-track. All three characters are referred to by others as “obsessive,” “OCD,” or some variation thereof, but none experience the pain that comes along with mental illness (which I can only imagine would be heightened by hearing laughing crowds).

Obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors become part of a vicious cycle in the minds of people with OCD. Most people with OCD realize that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational, but they are unable to break the cycle. Children often don’t perceive their abnormality; symptoms are noticed by parents and/or teachers.

In contrast, “neat freaks” and people with fixations often enjoy performing the behavior in question (such as alphabetizing books), enjoy the results (such as having a tidy apartment), have had the behavior drummed into them (such as rewinding video tapes after working at Blockbuster for years [I realize that I’m dating myself]), or out of practical necessity.

An over-organized closet may be a necessity for a working mother of two, saving endless headaches on school mornings.

Most People with OCD Fall Into One of the Following Categories (in no particular order)

  • Washers are afraid of contamination. They usually have cleaning or hand-washing compulsions. Many refuse to wear anything someone else has worn, take their own sheets to hotels/motels, etc.
    • Washing your hands before and after eating is just being extra hygienic; washing your hands until they are raw and cracked is a probable sign of OCD.
Artwork by NeverStayDead
  • Checkers repeatedly check things (motion-sensor lights turned on, car locked) they associate with safety. They might keep guns or other weapons that are checked for accessibility, condition, etc.
    • Jiggling the door handle after locking it could be a funny quirk; checking the lights, the thermostat, the window latches, and everything else repeatedly until you’re late for work is a sign of unhealthy compulsion.
  • Doubters and sinners are afraid that if everything isn’t perfect or done just so something terrible will happen or they will be punished. Dressing, undressing, bathing, eating must be done in precisely the same way, for example. Or furniture cannot be moved. Cars must always be the same make.
    • This can also take the form of rituals that must be completed regardless of convenience or safety, such as always taking seven steps at a time or touching every surface in a room, including the hot stove top.
  • Counters and arrangers are obsessed with order and symmetry, perhaps including superstitions about certain numbers, colors, or arrangements. For example, counting all the angles in a room, or the number of furniture legs.
    • Being unable to enter rooms painted blue or walk without counting sets of four steps sounds amusing… until the door out of the burning house is in a blue room five steps away.
  • Hoarders keep things they neither need nor use. They fear that getting rid of anything will cause something bad to happen, or it will be needed later. These people are often co-diagnosed with other disorders, such as depression, PTSD, ADHD, compulsive buying, or kleptomania. They might engage in skin-picking.

OCD symptoms may come and go over time. Added stressors increase symptoms.

It’s a vicious circle: obsessive thoughts trigger anxiety, which leads to compulsive behavior to try to curb the anxiety, and the behavior is followed by temporary relief.

Writers consider the following:

  • A person who actually is threatened in some way while others dismiss the anxiety and precautions as being silly fixations
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors are humorous and the source of derision/ joking among coworkers or friends/ acquaintances
  • A character whose compulsive behaviors embarrass children or other family members
  • A person whose compulsive behaviors put the family in financial jeopardy
  • A person whose compulsive behavior leads neighbors, classmates, and others to ostracize the person AND his/her family
  • A character who keeps obsessive thoughts private, doesn’t act on them, and the strain leads to withdrawal from intimate relationships
  • A character whose obsessions get them into medical or legal trouble
  • A character whose OCD has become so severe that they are unable to leave the house or keep a job

Bottom line for writers: OCD characters can provide tension, tragedy, and plot development; fixated or quirky characters can provide humor. There is a big difference.

YOU SAY “SQUIRRELLY” LIKE IT’S A BAD THING!

Writers take note: a squirrelly character could be an excellent choice!

Squirrel Traits and Characteristics directly relevant to humans:

  • Active: Squirrels are always on the go, climbing, running, jumping, chasing other squirrels. Their bodies are made for action, so they are seldom seen sitting quietly.
  • Fast: They move quickly and have fast reaction times, responding immediately to alarm calls, for example.
  • Resourceful: Squirrels gather food year round and store enough for winter. They take advantage of varied sources of food and shelter.

Squirrel origins. The word “squirrel” appeared as early as 1327.  Archaeological evidence indicates that squirrels originated in this (Virginia/Carolina) region of North America some 35-40 million years ago. Modern squirrels are divided into some 289 species. I’m going to focus on Eastern Gray Squirrels for two reasons: (1) they are the most numerous group; and (2) those are the ones in my back yard!

Squirrel habitat. Gray squirrels are tree-dweller. They build nests (called dreys) in the forks of tree branches. They use twigs and leaves, sometimes take over bird’s nests, or inhabit a permanent den hollowed out in the trunk or large branch of a tree. Wherever the nest, it is likely lined with moss, thistledown, dry grass, and feather insulation.

When access can be gained, they will take up residence in the walls or attics of houses—the scrabbling around driving the human inhabitants nuts, resulting in extreme (and often expensive) efforts to get rid of the invaders and block future access. But it’s worth it, because among other things, squirrels gnaw on electrical cords creating a fire hazard.

Consider the factors shaping your character’s habitat.

Squirrel diet. Squirrels are predominantly vegetarian, eating tree buds, berries, many types of seeds and acorns, nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, and others) and some types of  woods fungi. They can damage trees by tearing the bark and eating the soft tissue underneath. They raid gardens for tomatoes, corn, strawberries, and other garden crops. They cannot digest cellulose.

What I find especially frustrating, they often don’t actually eat what they damage, merely taking a bite or two and leaving the rest. Sometimes they eat tomato seeds and leave the pulp. They’ve been known to nibble my decorative pumpkins, taking a few bites and returning over time to take a few more bites, each time nibbling in a fresh spot.

If driven to it by hunger or other conditions, they prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents (including other squirrels), small birds, birds’ eggs. They will gnaw on bones, antlers, and turtle shells, possibly as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.

When opportunity arises, they will raid bird feeders for millet, corn, sunflower seeds, etc. Hanging out around bird feeders means opportunistic squirrels are perfectly situated in the middle of a relatively high bird population, increasing their ability to raid nests, eggs, and nestlings.

What characterizes your character’s diet—and why?  Omnivore, herbivore, carnivore. Exploratory, picky. Eat to live, live to eat.
Gray squirrels are scatter-hoarders.  They hoard food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season! Recent research indicates that squirrels can remember and recover up to 90% of the food they bury. This is probably a combination of excellent spatial memory and sense of smell.

The amount of food they have to hide no doubt explains why squirrels are constantly digging in my patio pots and flower beds! Even as I type they are uprooting pansies and breaking off the green stalks that would otherwise become daffodils.

Is your character a hoarder? Of what? Where? How?
Squirrels are smart and devious.  In order to keep other animals from digging up their food caches, they sometimes pretend to bury it. They prepare the spot as usual, pretend to put the food in while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering the hole as if the food were there. They also hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees. These behaviors appeared to be learned.

How does your character treat coworkers? Family? Friends?

Reproduction.  Grey squirrels can breed twice a year when fully mature (if food is abundant), once in the spring for younger females. These squirrels are polygynousi.e., competing males form a hierarchy of dominance and the female mates with multiple males depending on the hierarchy. Five days before a female enters estrus, she may attract up to 34 males from up to 500 meters away.

Typically one to four kits are born in each litter, hairless, blind, and deaf. They begin to leave the nest around 12 weeks. Only 25% of the kits survives to one year of age. More than half die the next year. After that, mortality is about 30% of the survivors per year.  An adult typically lives about 6 years in the wild, though it can be as many as 12.

Communication. Squirrels use both sounds and body language to communicate. They squeak, utter a low-pitched noise, a chatter, a raspy “mehr mehr mehr” as well as “kuk” or “quaa” (vocals warning of predators). Biologists describe an affectionate coo-purring sound used between a mother and her kits and by males when they court a female during mating season.

Squirrels also communicate by tail-flicking, facial expressions, and other gestures. The relative reliance on vocal versus physical signals depends on ambient noise and sight-lines.

Human communication: verbal (the words said), paralanguage (how it’s said), and body language (posture, gesture, facial expression)

And one very special talent. Gray squirrels are one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first. It does this by rotating its back feet 180 degrees so the backward-facing claws can grip the tree bark. The benefit of this ability isn’t limited to trees. Squirrels are incredibly athletic, jumping among tree limbs or from trees to other object, and gasping with both front and back paws allows them to climb slim poles and hang both upside-down and right-side-up. In my back yard, and I presume other places, a tree branch bouncing and swinging in the morning sun is the signal that a squirrel is about to jump from the tree to the bird feeder—where it grasps whatever comes first to hand.

The beauty of gray squirrels. Gray squirrels have silky fur and bushy tails. They have predominantly gray fur with a white underside, but (like the gray wolf) can exhibit colors variations: brownish, black, and white. Squirrels that are almost entirely black predominant in certain geographic areas, specifically in the north, where it appears that their dark color is a survival adaptation to cold temperatures.

Albinos are present throughout nature, including among gray squirrels. Albinos squirrels have pure white fur with red eyes. White squirrels, on the other hand, are a genetic variation of the eastern gray squirrel, white but usually with a small patch of gray head patch and dorsal stripe. AND it has dark eyes.

In general, white squirrels are at a disadvantage, rejected by other squirrels and easily sighted by predators. However, in certain geographic areas, humans have taken a hand and allow white squirrels to thrive: Brevard, North Carolina; Marionville, Missouri, Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Ontario. The premier location seems to be Brevard, where one in three squirrels is white, the highest percentage white of any known squirrel colony. In 1986, Brevard passed an ordinance making the city a sanctuary for white squirrels, and now they celebrate a White Squirrel Festival.

I was fortunate enough to see a white squirrel in my back yard.—which makes me part of a (somewhat) elite club. Even though a white squirrel is still basically a talented tree rat, it has symbolism on its side. In folklore all-white animals have long been seen as portents of good luck, symbols of purity, and even visitors from the realms of gods and spirits.

This would naturally segue smoothly into a discussion of squirrel symbolism, but that turns out to be way too expansive for this blog. There are numerous online discussions of squirrels as totems, spirit animals, and animals of power. There is even an essay on the meaning of a squirrel appearing in dreams, depending on how and what it’s doing.

Writers: consider reading up a bit on squirrel symbolism because all of these articles describe the behaviors/characteristics of people with a squirrel connection.

THE FLIP SIDE OF TWINS

Identical twin sisters gave birth to daughters on the same day in Fresno, California.

Last week, Kathleen Corcoran shared a horrifying review of the portrayal of twins in horror films. The focus was on identical twins and the societal assumption of duality: good/bad, light/dark, the pervasive trope of one twin being evil—though sometimes both claim to be the evil twin!

Gred and Forge can both solemnly swear they’re up to no good!

There is a long history of assuming evil by one or both twins, attributing natural disasters and disease to twins, sometimes leading them to be left alone to die or even  buried alive along with their mother. Myths of twin mental telepathy, mate-swapping, and all sorts of weirdness have been around for centuries. But twins are fertile material for writers even without going to the dark side!


In the beginning:

Twins are of two types.

  • Identical twins (also called monozygotic) are the result of one egg, fertilized by one sperm, that for some reason separates into two cell masses shortly after fertilization. Their genetic codes are identical and permanent. 
  • Fraternal twins (also called dizygotic) are the result of two eggs being fertilized by two sperm during the same fertile period of the mother’s cycle. With the same father, fraternal twins share approximately 50% of their genetic heritage. They are no more alike genetically than any other full siblings of the same parents.

In this instance, the girls are full siblings of the same two parents. Plot point!  Given the differences in appearance, what if the father suspected that the mother had been with another man? 

The technical term is heteropaternal superfecundation.

How could fraternal twins have different fathers? It starts with the mother releasing more than one egg and then having sex with more than one man within the few days of her fertile cycle. According to Brian Boutwell in Psychology Today, 11/19/2017, “…more than 2% of fraternal twin pregnancies involve the genetic contributions of separate men, but Segal [Dr. Nancy L. Segal] contends that it’s likely higher, since when the two dads are of the same race and ethnicity, mothers may assume that both twins have the same sire.”

This British couple each fertilized one egg and implanted both embryos into the same surrogate.

Writers: Imagine the situation in which a woman would have sex with more than one man within days of each other. Rape? Promiscuity? Two intense relationships she’s conflicted about?

There are more fraternal twins among us than identical ones

The likelihood of identical twins is the same around the world, about 3-4 in 1,000 (3.3% in the U.S.). The incidence of fraternal twins varies by geography, from 6 to over 20 per 1,000 deliveries. Among the Yoruba in Nigeria, 1 in 11 people is a twin.

The World Twins Festival in Igboora-Ora, Nigeria celebrates the esteemed place twins hold in Yoruba society.

Do twins run in families?

Fraternal twins have long been recognized as likely to recur in families. Although women typically release only one egg per cycle, some women release multiple eggs on a regular basis, increasing the likelihood of fraternal twins. This tendency for hyperovulation can be an inherited trait straight from mothers to daughters and also to the daughters of sons. Writers: consider a character who is a matriarch in a twinning family.

Fraternal twinning rates vary across populations. A 2011 study reported that the highest rates of twinning in Central African populations, especially Benin. Asia and Latin America had the lowest rates of twinning. In the US, Asian American and Latino/Hispanic Americans (21.8/1000) have the lowest rates; African American women are more like (36.8 per 1,000) to have twins than Caucasian women. Getting pregnant while breastfeeding (while less likely overall) increases the likelihood of twins (11.4% vs. 1.1% in non-breastfeeding women).

Candido Godoi in Brazil has one of the highest densities of twins in the world, 10% of the total population.

Historically, identical twins have been assumed to result from random events in utero.  However, twin researcher Dr. Nancy Segal traveled to Brazil to spend time with a family that includes 22 sets of identical twins born across five generations. A study in Jordan focused on 13 sets of identical twins. Similarly, seven different families sharing similar alleles produced at least two pairs of identical twins. Clearly, this area of study is full of opportunities for further research.

Other factors affecting twinning: besides heredity, being an older woman (over 30), having previous children, being taller, and having a high body mass index (over 30) all increase the likelihood of fraternal twinning. Research among the Yoruba indicates that a diet high in beans and yams may contribute to twinning! Writers: to make your twinning thread realistic, first determine why they are twins.

Vanishing twin syndrome and related phenomena:

An estimated one in eight natural pregnancies begins as twins, but in the early weeks of the pregnancy one zygote (fertilized egg) is reabsorbed or spontaneously aborted, perhaps because of birth defects making it nonviable.

But sometimes the twin doesn’t really vanishin these cases, the fetus is partially reabsorbed and remnants of the nonviable fetus are found in the mother, placenta, or surviving twin. This is most likely to occur during the second or third trimester. The death of one twin at 15-20 weeks may result in papyraceous, a tiny paper-like flattened fetal remnant. Writers: imagine the possibilities. A teratoma tumor containing bone, hair, teeth, or tissue fragments may be found in the survivor. Some survivors feel longing, guilt, grief, or problems with relationships or sexuality.

Lifelong twinless-twins are people whose twin died at or near birth. Often the surviving twin strives to assert their uniqueness and/or feel as if they’re living for two people. Famous examples include Elvis Presley, painter Diego Rivera, pianist Liberace, and writers Thornton Wilder and Philip K. Dick.

The basic framework for twin studies: the goal is to understand variances in behavioral, physical, and mental health in the population at large. Studying twins allows researchers to separate (at least to a certain degree) the three contributing factors.

  • Ggenetic effects/ heritability
  • Shared environment, both in utero and after birth
  • Unshared/ unique/ non-shared environment, happen to only one twin (e.g., accidents, travel, work, classes)

Overall, research indicates that the relative importance of genetic vs. environment depends on the specific trait being studied. (Duh!)

When one twin is a robot, all three contributing factors are involved.

Birth order for twins

  • The general assumption is that twins are born minutes apart, but lots of twins have different birthdays. The longest time between deliveries is 87 days! Peggy Lynn, of Danville, Pennsylvania, delivered twins Eric and Hanna 84 days apart, one in November 1995, one in February 1996.
  • Birth order doesn’t seem to affect psychological outcomes.
  • Second-born twins are at higher risk for health problems including respiratory distress, neonatal trauma, and infections.
  • Along with the history of primogeniture in Great Britain, with older being the heir, there has been a tendency to assume some sort of primacy, privilege, or superiority to being firstborn. However, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the firstborn twin (always named Taiye) is assumed to be the younger of the twins: they believe the senior twin (always named Kehinde) sent the younger one out first to scout the world and declare it safe.
Taiye and Kehinde marrying Taiwo and Kehinda
(photo by BellaNaija)

Other twin facts

  • In utero, as early as 18 weeks, twins seem to reach for each other intentionally and stroke each other. Early signs of bonding?
  • About 40% of twins develop their own language.
  • Twins yawn contagiously. Most non-twins don’t exhibit this behavior till 4 or 5 years old.
  • They affect each other’s sleep patterns for years.
  • Identical twins still have different fingerprints.
  • One twin can’t get away with a crime by blaming the other twin because modern technology can distinguish them (facial recognition, fingerprints, hair follicles, etc.).
  • Twins are more likely than singletons to be left-handed.
  • Identical twins can vary greatly in specific skills.
  • About one third of twins are opposite-sex fraternal.

Weird similarities of twins reared apart:

Twins switched out at birth are rare, but many twins (at least 1,894 cases since 1922) have been reared apart as a result of adoption.
According to Dr. Nancy Segal, “they [twins reared apart] cannot be communicating because they are often unaware that the other twin exists—instead, they are reflecting their matched abilities, tastes, and temperaments.” Thus they may read the same books, follow similar household routines, or enjoy the same hobbies.


Jorge Enrique Bernal Castro, William Canas Velasco, Carlos Bernal Castro and Wilber Canas Velasco were switched at birth in Columbia and raised as two sets of fraternal twins instead of pairs of identical twins.


Another set of separated twins studied by Segal were “The Jim Twins.” Reunited at age 39 without previously knowing the other existed, they’d been adopted and lived forty miles apart in Ohio. Both got terrible migraine, bit their nails, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove light blue Chevys, scored poorly in math and spelling, had worked at McDonald’s and as part-time deputy sheriffs. One named his first son James Alan; the other named his first son James Allan. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty.

Identical twins habits, interests, intelligence, and religion seem immune to separate upbringings.

The Jim Twins

And then there’s the environment: 

Even with identical DNA, twins can exhibit remarkable differences in the way their genetics interact with the environment. For example, a set of four identical sisters were all diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 24, primarily as a result of an abusive upbringing. One sister had mild symptoms and might never have been diagnosed if not for her three sisters. The symptoms of the other three ranged from paranoia and hallucinations to catatonia and incoherence.

To protect the family’s anonymity, the sisters were referred to as the Genain Quadruplets in research publications.

Nowadays, it is widely acknowledged that all human disorders involve both a genetic and an epigenetic (environmental) component.
Although both identical and fraternal twins share parents, parenting styles, houses, food, schools, popular culture, etc., there is some speculation that parents, teachers, peers, and others treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal ones.

Kodinhi Village in Kerala, India has more than 400 sets of twins.

The upside of being a twin:

  • The extreme closeness of twins, of “having a best buddy for life” may be protective over their lifespan. Life is longest among identical twins, but fraternal twins also live longer than the general population.
  • Twins—particularly identical twins—validate each other, their beliefs and attitudes.
  • The opportunity to prank family and friends or take each other’s spelling tests provides endless amusement.
The violence often begins at birth.

The downside of being a twin:

  • For both identical and fraternal twins, a big downside is the comparison game: which twin is bigger, brighter, nicer, more attractive, more talented, etc.
  • For identical twins, a huge challenge is to establish one’s individuality. Not everyone wants to his/her identity to be defined by twinness.
Ere Ibeji are memorial statues honoring Yoruba twins who have died.

Celebrating twins

Yoruba twins have an annual festival in Ishara, a picturesque city on steep hills with dirt roads and what are reported to be “gingerbread-colored” houses (whatever that means). During the festival, twins in Ishara wear matching clothes, dance in the streets and exchange gifts. Their mothers cook the food, mostly beans.

The largest gathering of twins is the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Attendees can enjoy funnel cakes and other fair food. Thousands of twins participate, as well as other multiples. Researchers gather from far and wide to test volunteers and enlarge the body of knowledge associated with twins.

Bottom line for writers: twins are fertile ground for characters and plot. You can find an incredible amount of info online. Check it out!


DUOMAIEUSIOPHOBIA – DOUBLE TROUBLE

A suspected publicity stunt for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children terrified London commuters.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and reluctant sister, niece, and granddaughter of twins.

Even they cannot tell who is who in this photo.

Duomaieusiophobia (literally the fear of double childbirth) is the scientific name for the fear of twins, though it can refer to the fear of any multiple birth.  Twins are a very common element in movies and TV, whether identical, fraternal, or imaginary.

I bet they share absolutely everything!

In the horror genre, twins often serve to add an extra element of creepiness even if their relationship is not the primary driver of the plot.  Consider the twin girls in The Shining or the Merovingian’s twin assasins in The Matrix: Reloaded.  Though they are minor characters, their appearance on screen is chilling.

And this is before they turned into glowing electric ghosts

A big factor for this (beyond saving money by only paying one actor for two roles) comes down to our own subconscious: twins pose a threat to our understanding of self-identity and to the way the world works.  In some cultures, twins are seen as lucky or even venerated as having a direct link to the divine.

The Yoruba people have one of the highest concentrations of twins in the world, and they celebrate all of them.

In other cultures, twins are seen as the result of or the bringers of evil and are ritually killed.  At either end, twins are outside of the norm.

The Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Just being there was very unsettling.

The Evil Twin

Anthropologists have theorized that twins were originally seen as personifying the duality of nature – day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, etc.  This carried over into mythology, in which twins often played opposite roles, such as Apollo and Artemis controlling the sun and the moon.  Opposite moralities are also a common element in mythology; one twin is good and the other is evil: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, etc.

Jonah and Seth Trimble in Seconds Apart. Can you spot the evil twin?

Many horror movies play on this trope.  Twins are identical in every way except for the body count.  This idea is so common that an entire page of TVTropes is dedicated to good and evil twins or clones.  My sisters like to claim that they are both the evil twin.

Bette Davis played both good and evil twins in Dead Ringer.

Margot Kidder played a twin who was so possessive of her sister that she murdered any potential rivals in Sisters.

Twins of Evil starred actual twin sisters Mary and Madeleine Collinson, one of whom is turned into a vampire.

Closely linked to the idea of one twin being good and the other evil, there is a common theme of one twin taking the other’s place.  In comedies, this generally results in zany hijinks, as when the Marx brothers all put on Groucho Marx’s iconic mustache and glasses and caused mayhem all over the mansion in Duck Soup.

They weren’t actually twins, but Groucho, Chico, and Harpo could certainly pass!

In horror movies, the evil twin generally steps into the life of the good twin for personal gain or allows the good twin to take the fall for nefarious deeds.

Good twin Holland is punished for evil twin Niles… or so it would seem in the 1972 film The Other.

Blood Rage features a psychotically evil twin who frames his brother for several murders.

The Devil’s Double (2011) features both the good/ evil twin trope and the impostor/ scapegoat trope as well as being based on a true story.  Dominic Cooper plays Saddam Hussein’s son Uday as well as the soldier called up to be Uday’s fedai (a political decoy and body double).

Letif Yahia is rumored to be living in Ireland or Germany now.

Both Twins Are Evil

In many areas of the world, particularly West Africa, twins (or triplets or quadruplets) are viewed as harbingers of doom or even inherently evil.  Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart mentions the village custom of abandoning twins in the forest to die.  Some even blame the devastating 2016 earthquake in Tanzania as the work of angry twins.

June and Jennifer Gibbons are a real-life pair of twins, born in 1963, who spoke only to each other and committed several acts of theft and violence.

Despite a concerted effort by government and foreign aid groups, twins in Nigeria and Madagascar are frequently buried alive with their mother or sealed in a room to starve to death.  Though for different reasons, Hollywood shares many of these ideas of twins being unnaturally synchronized, lacking empathy for all others, possessing some form of supernatural ability, or even providing a gateway for evil spirits or ghosts.

The twin boys in American Horror Story: Murder House are condemned to spend eternity trapped in the house where they tormented others.

Jeremy Irons played both psychotic doctors in the film Dead Ringers, horrifyingly based on a true story.

Legend was also based on a true story, of the London gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, though Ronnie was arguably a little more evil.

The German film Goodnigt Mommy features a pair of twin boys who torture and kill their mother when they think she is an impostor.

Twins Separated or Left Alone

Because twins are so close, strange things tend to happen when they are raised separately or when one dies.  This is often called the Twinless Twin effect, and it touches the parents of twins and other siblings as well as the twins themselves.  Both Elvis Presley and Liberace lost a twin very early in life, and they both cited their missing twin as having a major influence on their creative work.

Both performers felt that they were living for their twin as well as themselves.

This particular grief felt by twinless twins, coupled with the assumption of twins’ psychic link, creates perfect fodder for horror movies.  Several of the films listed above have a surprise ending in which it is revealed that one twin has already died and is a hallucination or delusion of the remaining twin.  No spoilers!

A stillborn twin comes back to haunt his sister and serve as a bridge for the ghosts of other twinless twins in The Unborn.

Alone is a Thai horror movie about a conjoined twin who dies during separation surgery and comes back to possess her sister. It also features the trope of the good/evil twin pair.

Calling upon her supposed twin bond, the heroine of The Forest enters Aokigahara (the “Suicide Forest”) in Japan to search for her sister, whom she believes is planning to commit suicide.

The film Jonathon is an interesting twist on the idea of the twinless twin: both brothers inhabit one body, switching off every twelve hours, so they can never meet or interact.

Every year, at the Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, an entire section of the festival grounds is set aside for researchers looking for volunteers.  Twins throw balls into cups, test their memories, fill out questionnaires about mental health, and let themselves be weighed, measured, observed, and questioned to shed light on all those pesky questions people can’t answer by experimenting on babies.

Most researchers offer gifts or money in exchange for participation. My sisters won so much cash in prizes that I made them pay for the hotel.

Scientists are fascinated by twins because of what they can reveal about genetics and the role of environment in supposedly hereditary traits.  Anthropologists are fascinated by twins because of what they can illustrate about a culture’s understanding of self-identity.  Doctors are fascinated by twins because of what they can demonstrate about the contraction or treatment of illness.

Is the ability to play the harp standing up and backwards hereditary? You’d have to ask Camille and Kennerly Kitt, the Harp Twins.

Artists, filmmakers, writers of any sort are fascinated by twins because of what they can show us about human nature, because of the opportunity for wacky confusion, because they have a bond that is very rarely found in any other grouping of characters.  Twins are a source of comedy, drama, terror, tenderness, and every other aspect of writing… doubled!

This is by far the most terrifying image I found online. Can you tell which one is Bruce Willis?