Whodunnit?

Jack the Ripper

It’s rather ironic and appropriate that it is a dark and rainy day as I write about the Jack the Ripper Tour that we took while we were in London. It was a Friday evening at the end of a week in which the sun had shone gloriously on us every single day. We had seen so many of the treasures that make the city so remarkable and had enjoyed good food in spite of rumors that the cuisine often leaves something to be desired. Everything about our visit had been picture perfect, so it was only right to have a threat of rain as we boarded a double decker tour bus in search of the infamous places where five women were brutally murdered by a killer who was never found, but came to be known as Jack the Ripper.

We used our age and the fact that we were the first to arrive at the bus station to be the first in line to enter the bus. This advantage gave us a seat at the top of the bus that had a cover so that our enthusiasm was not the least bit dampened by the chilly precipitation that was moving over the city. A gifted movie director could not have created a better backdrop for the tale that our guide was about to unfold. His thick Scottish accent only made the experience seem somehow a bit more sinister.

I suppose that I had thought that a visit to London’s east end and the Whitechapel area would have taken me back in time to a place where the clock stood still. I did not expect to instead see modern buildings and signs of great progress that cloaked the poverty and want that had once defined the area. The story that we were hearing was of people whose existences were so dreary that they had often lost hope. In particular the women whose lives were so brutally taken were victims not just of a murderous rage, but of a society that had thrown them into the trash heap long before they were killed.

As I listened to the circumstances of each woman who met such a merciless ending I felt that the real tragedy lay in the way that they were perceived by a society. They were attempting to survive in a world so cruel that they had little hope of finding a semblance of peace. These ladies were sometimes abused by men, spurned as being somehow indecent, and left to their own limited resources to get from one cruel day to the next. As our journey through their nights of horror progressed I found myself pondering the sadness of their fates, and seeing them as vivid examples of the societal problems that have challenged women throughout history.

There was one victim who had come from Sweden to learn the housekeeping trade. At some point she became pregnant without benefit of marriage and was thus spurned forevermore. Left alone in a city that was foreign to her with no support systems of family or friends she had to turn to any means possible just to have food and a place to stay at night. She was at the mercy of people who viewed her as a fallen woman and her opportunities for a decent life were forever gone.

Another of the victims had been thrown out of her home by her husband, a situation that was quite common at the time. She ended up in a poor house lodged in a building that is still standing to this very day. There she had a bed and food, but few prospects for a better future. Eventually she left to be on her own, only to somehow encounter the man who murdered her.

There have been hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. Some believed that he got away with his crimes because he was a man of influence, perhaps a royal personage or someone who worked in law enforcement. Others considered that he might have been a doctor, a barber or a butcher because of his seeming skill in ripping the bodies of his victims apart. The saddest aspect of his crime spree is that he was almost operating in plain sight, but because his victims were at the bottom of the societal pecking order his actions seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was simply one of many men who preyed on the hopelessness of women caught in untenable situations.

Our group became rather quiet by the end of our journey. Somehow we were all thinking less on the idea of whodunnit and more on the sadness of the five women’s lives. In an ironic twist they are now remembered and even mourned. We fidgeted as we thought of their how awful they were treated not just by the killer but by all who saw themselves as more decent. They lived in the darkest shadows of a city where status was parceled out with a punishing stinginess. Simply by dent of birth they were relegated to unimaginable hardship. The true crime was the way in which they were shunned so cruelly by people who never took the time to know them.

At the end of the tour we were left at the Sherlock Holmes Pub where I suppose we were supposed to enjoy some merriment and a few laughs after our evening’s entertainment. Somehow instead we felt the need to just go quietly back to our hotel where we said little about what we had seen. Each of us were left with our own thoughts, and mine we steeped in great sadness with a touch of anger that anyone would ever have to live as the five women did. How many more like them were there? How many more like them live in fear even now? What must we do to ultimately end the cruelty that reduces the status of little girls and leads them into lives of domination and hurt? What will it take for us to make keeping them safe a priority no matter where they may live? That is a more important question than solving an old crime.

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Saving A Mind

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The world can often seem to be far more violent than it once was, but even a brief glance at the past proves that we have always had evil in our midst. The biggest difference between now and then is that we hear about every instance of criminal or terroristic behavior almost instantly regardless of where it happens. Not that long ago we maybe heard a one minute blurb on the nightly news or read about the incidents in our local newspaper. It was easy for knowledge of such things to slip through the cracks so to speak. Those who committed heinous crimes usually did not achieve the level of notoriety that they do in the current climate. There was not as much incentive for copy cats. There was not as much information for those with sick minds to emulate.

I have a fascination with people and the way they do things. My interest made me a good educator because I did not just provide information to my students, but I was also understanding of who they were and what they needed to be confident and successful. I quickly learned that the teen years are difficult for even the most gifted and mentally healthy young people. In following my students after they graduated from college and entered their twenties I realized how confusing it can be to transition into the adult world. What I found in my observations is that there are certain situations that lead to more frustrations and tendencies to feel lost and abandoned. Our journeys through life require love and support which is not always forthcoming for every person. Feelings of alienation are amplified by mental illnesses and a sense of aloneness.

If we examine the lives of criminals and those who do horrendous things there are often commonalities. Loss of a parent or loved one can trigger unresolved anger, particularly at certain critical ages or when the individual has other mental problems. So many of our offenders are people who have been abused or who have disorders of the mind that have been improperly treated. They are already filled with frustrations and then some comment or incident triggers the rage that has been seething inside of them. In the aftermath of their criminal acts there always seem to be individuals who noted disturbing behaviors in them but felt helpless to do anything about them.

The conundrum that we have is how to balance our right to individual freedom with common sense approaches to treating conditions that may lead to tragedy. At the present time our society bends in favor of caution with regard to personal rights. We are more likely to defer to a person’s decision to be left alone, even when our instincts tell us that trouble is brewing in his/her mind. Our laws only allow us to force therapies and treatments in extreme cases. Furthermore, we often ignore cues as being just the way a certain individual is rather than seeing them as signs of greatly needed attention.

When we couple all of this with the generalized anger that is so commonplace today, we are creating human time bombs that have the potential to go off at any moment. While we rant over things that make little or no difference in people’s lives we miss opportunities to help someone overcome the war raging in the mind. Over and over again we ask why we have so many guns or bombs or implements of violence while showing little or not interest in discovering why we have such broken beings. Maybe because we are still too timid to speak of the diseases that exist in the mind or to tackle childhood abuses that so often lead to monstrous adults.

We ask when we will have enough courage to take away the means of violence, but we rarely ask when we will have enough courage to attack the problems of the mind that so often lead to that violence. We act as though noting the mental problems of a criminal are akin to excusing the acts rather than admitting that we somehow missed the cues that might have prevented the murderous rage from ever happening, and there are always signs.

There were teachers, students and parents who expressed their fears of the young men who wreaked mayhem at Columbine long before anything happened. Their concerns were all but ignored. There was a psychiatrist who noted that the crazed attacker of a movie theater was dangerous, but she was ignored. Nobody really listened to the mother of the autistic loner who was afraid of her son who would later kill little children at an elementary school. The list goes on and on and on yet we still do not insist that our system of mental health needs a full overhaul. We continue to avoid the family with the strange acting child or teen. We forget to support and counsel someone who has experienced a tragic loss.

When my father died I was only eight years old. Few adults thought that I had any real idea of what had happened or that my emotions were developed enough to really matter. The truth is that I was filled with a mixed bag of confused feelings. I was depressed but mostly angry. Luckily my mother created an environment in which I was able to eventually sort the toxic thoughts that ran through my mind. I experienced stability and kindness that helped me to feel secure in a moment when my world felt so chaotic. It took a long while to reach a point of well being, but the healthy routine of my world along with an entire village of people who were interested in helping me led me out of the darkness. As an educator I know that far too many young people in similar situations who feel totally alone and hopeless. Unless their anxieties are addressed they will only grow more and more angry over time. Before long society will simply view them as troublemakers and evil doers. We will have missed the opportunities to help them to become better versions of themselves.

When a shooting or other violent act occurs it should be a reminder to us that we have much work to do to save more minds. We inoculate against disease and treat illnesses of the body routinely, but we are still way behind when it comes to the mind. It’s time we attempt to catch up.

Ripper Street

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Mike and I just finished binge watching five seasons of Ripper Street on Netflix. It was one of the most well written and intriguing series that I have followed since Breaking Bad. The story begins in 1889, right after one of Jack the Ripper’s last victims was found, but it is not just a story of that killer’s crimes. In fact the title is more of a metaphor than an indication of the way the plots will unfold. More than anything it is a look into the gritty world of Victorian England in Whitechapel and the horrific conditions there that troubled otherwise hard working and hopeful people. It centers on four characters associated with the H Street Police Station, one of the roughest law enforcement assignments in all of London at the time. The lead investigator is Edmund Reid, an man tied to his job by memories of the horrific murder of a possible Jack the Ripper victim. He is nobly assisted by Detective Bennet Drake, a man filled with tragic demons whose heart yearns only for goodness and love. Captain Jackson is an American expatriate with a murky past who reluctantly serves as a medical examiner for the police. His wife “Long” Susan Hart is the madame of a Whitechapel brothel with a questionable story as intriguing as her husband’s.

The series features beautiful phrasings and word pictures from the characters who use language to communicate the intricacies of their minds and hearts. As the five seasons unfold we learn of the tragedies that have haunted each of the very real people who inhabit the stories. It is a kind of Shakespearean tribute to the difficulties of living during that era told through the eyes of sympathetic but imperfect people. It grips the viewer with both compassion and revulsion. Much like Breaking Bad almost everyone is neither all good nor all bad, but simply doing whatever it takes to survive. The stories challenge us to think out of the box with regard to human nature and individual worth. It is a fascinating look at both history and the complexities of the people who live it.

There is a kind of gritty realism to the stories, but in the end it is in the relationships and their complicated intertwining that the best of the writing takes place. Each role is so beautifully acted that by the series end there is a sense that we have known and loved such people. The writer is realistic in his portrayals of the times and the characters, so much so that even the most outlandish storylines seem plausible. Everything in Ripper Street is a metaphor for life and death and the challenges that people faced in a time that is almost unimaginable to those of us who live in the modern days of plenty.

The series originally aired on BBC but was canceled after only two seasons. Netflix picked up the option to continue it for three more seasons and it has proven to be one of the most popular offerings ever. It actually ended in 2016, but has garnered such a faithful following that it continues to rank high on both Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix viewership. It is the kind of series that bores an ear worm in the brain, causing one to think about the times and the people long after watching one of the episodes.

Mike and I discovered the series after we had enjoyed a number of BBC and Netflix detective shows. We joked that the title was perfect for me because I have always had a morbid fascination with the Jack the Ripper cases. We soon enough found that the title was somewhat misleading, but we had almost immediately fallen in love with the story and the amazing characters. Soon we were sitting down in the evenings watching one or two episodes each night. Sometimes we spoke of the plots and the people during the day wondering what would happen next as though we were following the adventures of dear friends.

If you enjoy a good detective story, tightly described characters, the allure of Victorian England, and a brilliant use of the English language Ripper Street will most certainly delight you. It has elements of all the best and most popular series of our times. There is a bit of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad in the evolution of the stories and characters. As with those brilliant classics, saver perhaps House of Cards, the writing stays amazing until the very end.

So many writers begin to lose their mojo as the years on the air take their toll on originality and believability. The plots jump the shark and the players become caricatures rather than believable individuals. Ripper Street sometimes flirts with such disappointments but always finds a way to redeem itself. It is well worth a watch, especially for those who are fans of good old fashioned sleuthing with a touch of the exotic.

I’ve been chasing after mysteries from the time I was a girl poring over my Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured Sherlock Holmes and graduated to Agatha Christi, eventually moving on to the more modern authors of brilliant detective work. Ripper Street has won a top spot in my list of favorites. I only wish that somehow the stories of Reid, Drake, Jackson and Hart might somehow be resurrected for a prequel perhaps. I still long to know more about them and dream of the kind of reincarnation that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off when the demands of fans urged him to bring Sherlock back to life after his seeming demise. I guess I’ll have to find solace in Better Call Saul until something  akin to Ripper Street come along.

Hubris

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Elizabeth Holmes has been featured in an episode of 20/20 and in an HBO documentary. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works as well. Her story is rather amazing. She founded a company at the age of 19 that at one time had an estimated worth of billions of dollars. She was a young woman with a vivid imagination who graced the covers of magazines. Her ideas began to unfold when she was still a child drawing detailed diagrams of a time machine, and other flights of fancy. As a freshman at Stanford University she came up with an idea for a patch that would be able to detect an infection and then administer a dose of antibiotics. She applied for a patent for her idea but sadly such a mechanism was entirely infeasible and came to naught. She moved on the the big invention that would make her one of the youngest CEOs and billionaires in the country.

Elizabeth wanted to create a simple way of testing blood for disease. She hated the way blood is drawn with needles and multiple tubes. She wanted to create a machine that would be able to perform all of the necessary tests from only a pen prick of blood. She imagined a way of getting the blood and then testing it in a machine so small that it might be carried into a battlefield. She was so proud of her idea that she called it” the Edison” in honor of the famous inventor who had inspired her from the time she was a child. She called her company “Theranos”, an amalgam of the words therapy and diagnosis. She saw her invention as a revolutionary way of delivering diagnoses that would change medicine all over the world. Her backers were so excited by the possibilities that they gave her hundreds of millions of dollars without securing any evidence that she was indeed capable of creating the needed technology.

Elizabeth hired a team of experts and filled her board of directors with some of the biggest names in the world. She built a magnificent headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley and staffed it with brilliant and  innovative young minds. She fashioned herself as a new Steve Jobs dressing all in black and creating advertisements for her company that were sleek and exciting. Unfortunately even after years her idea did not work. In spite of all of the assertions that she was on the cusp of a whole new world, she was chasing after a dream that was probably never going to happen. After an journalistic expose revealed that “the Edison” did not work her company began to collapse. In the end it was worth less than zero.

When I heard about Elizabeth Holmes I wondered how she was able to muster the confidence to scam people with little more than an idea and nothing to prove that the technology would be effective and reliable. A bit of research into her background gave me some insights into the workings of her mind, or at least provided me with some theories about what made her tick.

Elizabeth was the granddaughter of a physician who founded a hospital and enjoyed a notable and productive career, so there is little doubt in my mind that she is a highly intelligent woman who came from intelligent stock. Her genetic background as well as her education seem to prove that Elizabeth had great potential. She lived for a time in my city, Houston, while her father was a vice president at Enron, a company that was built on smoke and mirrors that ultimately collapsed. She attended St. John’s School, an elite institution with a long waiting list that only the best, brightest and wealthiest children are able to attend. The school exists in  a rarified atmosphere of influence and power. It would be easy to see Elizabeth developing an exalted opinion of herself from being one of the chosen few able to go to such a prestigious place. Being accepted to the Engineering program at Stanford University would have reinforced her feelings about her self worth.

Elizabeth must have seen herself as someone who was going to change the world, and she was in a big hurry to do so. Her professors realized that she was brilliant and even one of the top students that they had ever met, but for some of them she was annoying in her insistence that she knew more than they did. She sought them out as mentors and then ignored them whenever they honestly critiqued her ideas. She often spoke of how Thomas Edison had to make ten thousand mistakes before some of his inventions worked. She truly believed that she was able to see the world more clearly than even her more experienced teachers.

She parlayed her connections and her confidence into a business that fooled even brilliant people like Bill Clinton who was one of her admirers. It’s possible that she believed her own press for a time, but at some point she had to realize that her company was little more than a scam much like Enron where her father had once worked. If she did continue to believe that she was on to something big, then she was quite deluded because it was clear to many of the employees that nothing was working as it should even as she advertised untruths. Evidence seems to indicate that she knew exactly what was happening and did her best to cover for the lack of progress by instituting an atmosphere of secrecy.

Most children have fantastical ideas. Some even make those ideas become reality. My brother dreamed of sending humans to the moon. The work of thousands of talented scientists and engineers made it happen. We need people who think out of the box and take us into uncharted territory, but they have to be honest about what they are actually achieving. Elizabeth Holmes was not. She lied again and again perhaps to keep the funds rolling in because she really did think that one day a eureka moment would occur, or maybe she was just hiding her failures. Sadly her actions hurt every person who attempts to find support for a reasonable idea.

I know some young men who worked very hard to find backers for what might have been an amazing tech company. I have rooted for a man who wants to make wind power a reality for anyone who wants to install his equipment in the backyard. Most people provide evidence that their inventions will actually work before they ask for funding. To make untrue claims in the hopes that they will one day come true is a fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes is a fascinating young woman, but also someone who seems to have little concern for all of the people that she scammed. That is the definition of a sociopath. While her idea was grounded in good intentions she was unwilling to do all of the hard work that is usually required of anyone who wants to change the world for the better. Perhaps her grandiose opinion of herself along with a great deal of immaturity lead her to her ultimate failure. Somewhere along the way she might have done the right thing by admitting that she was stumped. Instead she lied and even sent faulty test results to patients who were grievously harmed. She has yet to admit her responsibility for a fiasco. Her hubris is a tragedy not just for her but for everyone who believed in her. She has cast a shadow of doubt on anyone who is attempting to launch the next truly great idea. Who will now believe?

When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now.