The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part Three

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of The Alienist book blog series.

The AlienistHere we are again at the close of another year. New Year’s Eve in 2014, however, is a particularly noteworthy date for 17th Street. Not only does it mark the conclusion of the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication, it also marks the 9th anniversary of the website. In consequence, I’m pleased to be presenting the final part of the special three part blog series overviewing The Alienist‘s central themes in honor of both milestones.

In the preceding two parts of the blog series, we have explored several of the novel’s central themes, ranging from corruption and hypocrisy to domestic violence and childhood trauma. As we conclude the series in Part Three, we will continue the discussion begun in Part Two that the role of the mother was one of the key differences between the early childhoods of Dr. Kreizler and John Beecham, leading us to explore themes in the novel relating to the role of women in society, the role that mothers can play in domestic violence and childhood trauma, trust and betrayal, regaining control, psychological determinism, and changing the way we think about mental health.

The Role of Women in Society

Although it may seem as though The Alienist‘s sequel, The Angel of Darkness, is the stronger of the two novels in terms of themes tied to the feminine—that is, in its examination of what drives women to kill—it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that the role of women in society, and the role that mothers can play in domestic violence and childhood trauma more specifically, are themes that are as prominently placed in the original novel as in its successor. As early as Chapter 5 in The Alienist when we are introduced to Sara Howard, a close childhood friend of John Moore and one of the first female police secretaries, the unique experiences—and frustrations—of women in New York society of 1896 are brought to our attention.

The Alienist, Chapter 5:

“Sara—with all the professions open to women these days, why do you insist on this one? Smart as you are, you could be a scientist, a doctor, even—”

“So could you, John,” she answered sharply. “Except that you don’t happen to want to. And, by way of coincidence, neither do I.”

Sara HowardSara’s inclusion in the novel as an intelligent, fiery, competent, and determinedly single-minded woman with the goal of becoming New York’s first female police officer is no accident. While her employment in the novel as police secretary is a clear nod to Theodore Roosevelt’s controversial decision to hire a female secretary upon becoming Police Commissioner (his real secretary, Minnie G. Kelly, was “young, small and comely, with raven black hair”; see 17th Street’s Island of Vice book blog for more information), she is also representative on a more general level of those women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had begun to push back against the prevailing view that the only proper role for women in society was as a doting wife and mother in the home; an ideology that had dominated American culture from the late eighteenth century onwards (see 17th Street’s Education of Sara Howard history blog series for more information). However, it is important to note that Sara’s purpose in the novel in terms of social commentary is not strictly historical, as Caleb Carr pointed out in an interview with Salon in 1997:

I wanted to write a book with a female character whose reasons for being in the story did not depend on her falling in love with somebody. Women are still being brought up to believe that they have to build their bodies and their minds toward relationships and not toward independent existences of their own choosing. And I wanted to show that women can do that.

I, for one, appreciate Mr. Carr’s stance on this topic. Only last month The New York Times ran a piece pointing out that despite the bleak statistics on marriage, a large number of young women still see the “fairy-tale wedding” as their crowning moment in life, with the wedding gown continuing to be viewed by many as “the most important dress in the life of a woman,” as Oscar de la Renta stated in a recent Vogue magazine spread. As the author of the NYT piece pointed out, “He probably wasn’t considering what a woman would wear, say, as she accepted a Nobel Peace Prize, or was being sworn in as the president of the United States.” Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson went on to explain this mentality in the NYT piece using language strongly reminiscent of the woman’s sphere ideology of the nineteenth century, “Hillary Clinton might be the first female president, but a woman still wants this badge of legitimacy that she is wanted and desired by a man.” Accordingly, the inclusion of an independent female who remains single by choice in a bestseller such as The Alienist is a breath of fresh air, even if, as Dr. Kreizler observes to John,

The Alienist, Chapter 9:

“Women of such temperament,” he said as we moved to the carriage, “do not seem fated for happiness in our society. But her capabilities are obvious.”

“There is more than one type of violence, Doctor.”

Taking the role of women in society one step further, one of the less well-recognized themes in The Alienist is the role that women, specifically mothers, are capable of playing in domestic violence and childhood trauma. Although most readers would recognize this theme from The Angel of Darkness where the murderer was a woman who, lacking Sara’s financial freedom and family support, had been expected to fulfill the role of wife and mother—a role to which she was wholly unsuited, and was unable to come to terms with—the theme is, in fact, just as important in The Alienist. | Continue reading →

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The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part Two

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of The Alienist book blog series.

The Alienist 2006 EditionAs we fast approach the conclusion of the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication, I am honoring the milestone for the second last time on 17th Street with Part Two of a special three part blog series examining the novel’s central themes. In addition to presenting The Alienist as a superb piece of historical fiction, Part One in the blog series explored two of the novel’s central themes—corruption and hypocrisy—to help to explain why the investigative team attracted so many “powerful enemies” as they pursued their killer. Specifically, it was their enemies’ fear of exposure of “all the hidden crimes that we commit when we close ranks to live among each other,” as Dr. Kreizler put it at the conclusion of The Alienist, that was so very dangerous to the city’s power brokers at the time. As we continue our discussion in Part Two, we will be examining these “hidden crimes” more directly as we explore some of the themes in the novel that relate to the hidden world of the family behind closed doors.

Society’s Secret Sins

One of the more surprising twists in the final chapters of The Alienist was the assistance provided by Paul Kelly’s right-hand man, eat-’em-up Jack McManus, during John Moore and Dr. Kreizler’s final confrontation with the killer. Puzzled about why Kelly, a notorious gangster, might have decided to help the doctor in such an essential way given his efforts to cause mayhem and disruption earlier in the investigation (see Part One), one of the final scenes in the novel involves John visiting Kelly at the latter’s New Brighton Dance Hall. Although Kelly feigns ignorance about the part his henchman played in the crucial battle, he does provide John with one tantalizing hint regarding his motives.

The Alienist, Chapter 46:

“I’m not saying I know anything about it, of course. But ask yourself this when you get a free minute—of all the people who were up there tonight, who do you think is really the most dangerous to the boys uptown?”

Anthony ComstockThis view is reflected in the outrage we see the censor of the United States Post Office, Anthony Comstock, express during a meeting he and other prominent New York figures, including the famed financier J. P. Morgan, have with John and Dr. Kreizler early in Part III of the novel. Comstock claims during this meeting that he believes it is Dr. Kreizler’s intent to “spread unrest by discrediting the values of the American family and society” through the pursuit of an investigation that relies heavily on a theory founded in psychological determinism being found to have merit; specifically, Dr. Kreizler’s theory of “context” in which it is proposed that an individual’s personality and behavior in adulthood is determined by his or her experiences during infancy and childhood. Comstock is not alone in his concerns, with J. P. Morgan joining Comstock in expressing his misgivings about the implications of Dr. Kreizler’s theory as well.

The Alienist, Chapter 30:

“Mr. Comstock has the energy and brusqueness of the righteous, Dr. Kreizler. Yet I fear that your work does unsettle the spiritual repose of many of our city’s citizens, and undermines the strength of our societal fabric. After all, the sanctity and integrity of the family, along with each individual’s responsibility before God and the law for his own behaviour, are twin pillars of our civilization.”

Although Dr. Kreizler successfully contends during the meeting that he has never “argued against the idea that every man is responsible before the law for his actions, save in cases involving the truly mentally diseased,” this is not the first time Dr. Kreizler has faced open opposition to his work or theories. Indeed, early in the novel we see John express his disbelief that Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt would so much as countenance the Doctor taking part in any police investigation given the general public’s opinion of his friend’s work. | Continue reading →

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The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part One

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of The Alienist book blog series.

The AlienistAs the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication draws to a close, I have decided to honor the occasion one final time with a special three part book blog series. Regular visitors to 17th Street will already be aware that I have spent much of 2014 discussing the various works of fiction and non-fiction Caleb Carr cited as inspirations for The Alienist on the 17th Street book blog (see my discussions of The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett and How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis as examples). However, despite having run 17th Street for nearly nine years now, it recently occurred to me that I have never shared any of my personal views about the book that started it all: The Alienist.

In truth, my failure to share my personal views about either of the Alienist books on 17th Street was largely by design. As I see reading as a deeply personal experience, my original goal with 17th Street was simply to provide a comprehensive resource for interested readers that would serve to enhance the reading experience with maps of book locations, timelines of key plot events, character lists, character analyses, and historical information rather than influencing the reading experience with subjective opinion pieces. However, having now spent the past year sharing my personal views on the various works that influenced The Alienist, I think the time has come for me to finally share my subjective—sometimes controversial—opinions about the book itself.

The following series therefore pays homage to a book that touched me more powerfully than any other had done at the time I read it over ten years ago, and that continues to inspire me to this day. Whether you are a first-time reader of The Alienist or are returning for a re-read, I hope you find the following series helpful, and will take the time to look a little more deeply in order to see the book as more than just a gripping psychological thriller or enticing piece of historical fiction; rather, that you will see it as the superbly constructed piece of social commentary that it is—a piece of social commentary that is not just about society of 120 years ago, but about our society, too.

“You can practically hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoing down old Broadway…”

The New York Times opened their 1994 review of The Alienist with the preceding statement, and there is no better way to introduce what is, at the most basic level, a historical thriller of the first order. As I noted in one of my posts replying to the NY Public Library’s discussion of The Alienist in late 2013, Mr. Carr is a historian first and foremost, and it shows in the way he captured not only 1890s New York City and everything that entails, but also the history of psychology and psychiatry, forensic science, and even literature as well.

Speaking as an experimental psychologist with a keen interest in my own field’s history, I can attest that the accuracy and skill with which Mr. Carr incorporated the history of psychology and psychiatry into the text was nothing short of superb. Even though none of the characters had more knowledge than they would have had in 1896, a realistic psychological profile was able to be constructed (quite a feat!) by a psychiatrist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who was in no way anachronistic, as Mr. Carr explained in his 2013 New York Times web chat in answer to a question I asked about the real psychological figures who contributed to Dr. Kreizler’s character and professional opinions:

Laszlo Kreizler was based in part on Dr. [Adolf] Meyer, very definitely, but he was equally based on William James, and the combination is important: Meyer, while he was forward-thinking in most respects, tended to be very medical in his outlook, and very concerned with subjects that medicine could directly address. James, on the other hand, though a doctor, had transcended medicine, and was willing to look toward any solution that might throw light on a particular problem, or that might throw light on life in general. I like to think that Kreizler, for all his seeming rigidity about certain things, was a philosopher as much as he was a medical man, and hence the combination. There were other influences on his character, of course, and he basically sheds light on them in the first big examination scene at 808 Broadway, where the note to Mrs. Santorelli is examined. No influence was too outlandish (as in the case of Krafft-Ebing) or too incompletely formed (as in the case of Freud) for him to consider, whereas both of those men were dismissed out of hand by most of the medical establishment. In short, Kreizler was as much a psychologist as a psychiatrist, and perhaps more his own breed of philosopher above all.

Beyond the history of psychology and psychiatry, the novel also provides an interesting glimpse into the history of forensic science. Thanks to the inclusion of the forward-thinking Detective Sergeants Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, the investigative team is able to employ forensic techniques that were only emerging at the turn of the last century, including dactyloscopy (fingerprint identification), anthropometry, and handwriting analysis. However, in case it seems a little too prescient of the Detective Sergeants to only use techniques that time would establish had sound scientific basis, we also see Marcus try his hand at optography, an intriguing technique that was ultimately doomed to failure. Involving the attempted retrieval of an optogram, an image on the retina of the eye, optography was based on the popular nineteenth century idea that the retina records the last image it sees at death. | Continue reading →

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