Illusion of Control

No spankings this week for me. I’m on time, and on my best behaviour (relative to the PMR standard of behaviour though). I actually wanted to share a funny link this week that I got sent – Straw Feminists – a hilarious take on the Straw Man argument technique. The comic is a hilarious depiction of the notion that all feminists are ball breaking bitches who want to kill men and destroy the world. I know I’ve had that one levelled at me, and I’m sure some of my commenters have too.

One of the things that seemingly became ultra-important in the latest book – at least for a subset of fanfic – is the Super!Sookie phenomenon. It was all born of the appearance of Mr. Cataliades, and wanting to get Sookie to handle her telepathy. I think this is a relatively shallow look to take at the idea – and I don’t think the mystical time when Sookie’s telepathy will be handled will ever happen. This is really about the hope that people have, and the illusion of control that people fall into.

So firstly, the whole meta themes of the books doesn’t actually lend itself to that. Telepathy is seen by CH as a disability. Sookie herself has made it clear on the page that it is a disability. Sookie herself has made it clear all the way through the books that her telepathy is something that is not a gift – but something that is a curse. She doesn’t hate herself, but she doesn’t like telepathy either. In fact, she picks up much of the rhetoric of others – that she is “crazy” and such. Sookie constantly reminds the reader that there might be times when telepathy has saved her life, but there’s a whole heap that it has ruined for her. In fact, it is the very reason she’s in the supernatural world – because any ordinary person without a serious disability would be stupid to date a vampire. I would also like to point out that vampirism is in no way a ‘superpower’ either. Vampires have to sleep during the day, and they don’t get to skip the rules about no eating, or touching silver.

If CH were to take telepathy out of the equation – make it easy to deal with, then she would remove the very stated purpose of the books. And in fact, she would probably alienate a whole section of readers. Instead of giving us a heroine with her own struggles to fit into a world that isn’t holding forth open arms, she would give us a heroine with no struggle of her own. She would be the mouthpiece for the vampire and were problems. She would go from active narrator, to passive narrator. One only need look at True Blood to see how empty that narrative gets – in view of vampires who can do everything, ever. It gets boring and old fast.

As the mother of children with disabilities, I often ponder on exactly what’s going on when people make a Super!Sookie, or the infallible Eric everyone loves. I think it’s a rather poignant reflection of exactly what society does to people with disabilities. It ignores their struggles because they’re considered to be “too hard”. Sure, my kids aren’t telepaths, but I can tell you for sure that when they got bullied at school, people cared a whole bunch less, because it’s to be expected that they’ll be picked on for being different. They just sort of have to lump it because no one can be bothered to try and stamp it all out.

Now, I’m not saying that the writers who write these stories pick on people with disabilities – I’m saying that it’s taken as acceptable to say that because a disability is difficult to deal with, it’s perfectly okay to erase any of the dialogue from our consciousness. So the teasing Sookie endured as a child is a nice allegory for the teasing kids with disabilities suffer the world over – and taking it out of consciousness, making it all better? That’s ignoring all those people out there who can’t take the magic pill Sookie gets. It shows just how huge and gaping the lack of empathy is from people who don’t have the same problems. They’d far prefer that people not like them talk about their problems.

I can also tell you for sure that just mentioning disabilities can often kill conversations – I’ve experienced it all over the web. If I say “my kids have disabilities” you can bet your arse that few people reply at all. Even if I’m not lamenting it – it makes a discussion go dead.  Even though I don’t have disabilities, I get a taste of that experience. That’s not to say that I don’t understand that at times it can be difficult to know what to say – and sometimes you don’t want to unintentionally insult or upset people – but then, if it happens everywhere, that shows just how difficult it is for people with disabilities to get any conversation going about it. So I think fiction is a brilliant place to actually present it – no one is going to worry about hurting Sookie’s feelings (whoo boy is that one true). It’s a non-confrontational way to bring disabilities into the dialogue.

I should also note that despite fanfic making the perfect Barbie playhouse with Sookie featuring, this is actually a common theme in fantasy – Tyrion from Game of Thrones is a really popular character. Vampires and werewolves have long had the theme of being portrayed as having disabilities. Consider Professor Lupin in Harry Potter – he’s not seen as having a superpower, but rather a disability. It’s a safe way to explore similar medical conditions with limitations on the character. Fantasy is one of the areas where writers can explore allegories of disability without constraint, and without focusing on one disability, but rather the overall theme.

So for those reasons, CH isn’t going to undercut her themes by making it all go away in the end – she’ll never enter into the Super!Sookie dynamic, because it will completely remove her ability to explore themes of disability, adversity and tolerance. But she’s also made it clear in the text that that won’t and can’t happen. She’s made it clear that no matter what happens, there’s no point in life – in the lives of her characters – where they can assert that their troubles “over”. Once Eric gets rid of Sophie Anne – a looming problem – he is not free of Felipe or Appius – and if he were to get rid of them, then it wouldn’t mean that he would be safe and home free. In essence, there would always be something.

In practical terms, that means that she doesn’t kill the tension, as I’ve spoken about before. Very little interesting stuff if the main characters are just buggerising around in a room, doing nothing, fighting nothing. In fact – look at the fanfictions where that is supposed to happen – inevitably – if Sookie is promised being with Eric, do her problems stop, as he so promised? Well, no they don’t. There are a whole bunch of readers who will assert that Sookie is to blame for not living with Eric, not doing what’s she’s told – and yet there are no fanfictions where she moves in with Eric, and the rest of the story is all about what she cooks during the day, and how it’s just another ordinary night at Fangtasia where nothing happens.

What it really is, is the illusion of control that we give ourselves and Sookie – that there is something, some measure to take so that bad things don’t take part in your life. The idea that if you’d just done something different, your life would be better. That doesn’t make it so, but the siren song is always there. For those that prefer the little bit of information I incorporate into my posts, that’s called the Just World Fallacy. You can see that represented in the idea of “karma” (a word I personally fucking despise) and other things like comeuppance. The idea that good things happen if you are a good person who does things right.

Of course, one of the bad sides of this phenomenon is that we blame the victim rather than the perpetrator of bad things. Rather than blame Eric for the hard bite, we blame Sookie. And then we blame her for getting tortured, and for not having a handle on her telepathy. Never mind that she had little agency in those things – and they were a result of the decisions made by others – but she is seen as at fault because she’s not doing what she’s supposed to. And don’t ask me to believe that a bunch of readers who often whine at length about the direction some books are going in are tough enough to stand up to torture, and shrug their shoulders like they exhort Sookie to do. They can’t “suck it up” or “put on their big girl panties” over that alone – let alone actual adversity. Rather they hold onto the illusion of control and blame her for the bad that befalls her.

Mr. Cataliades offer of training is another area where there is an illusion of control. To refresh your memory – and mine – that he offered some training to Sookie in the last book:

I need to give you lessons, child, as I should have done before.
Deadlocked, p. 223

Of course, almost instantly, this was hailed to be the magic pill of control that Sookie needed and had avoided getting for herself. I read about how she should have asked earlier and all kinds of guff. And now, there are a section of people with the thoughts that that would solve all of Sookie’s problems.

Except it won’t. It hasn’t even solved all of Mr. Cataliades’ problems. He’s not Super!Cataliades – and he’s mostly demon, and way, way older than Sookie. In fact, he tells us himself:

You’re the only person I know who has as many enemies as I.
Dead Reckoning,
p. 272

Learning how to deal with telepathy and hear more useful stuff has not made Mr. Cataliades’ life better. It hasn’t made less people target him. In fact, it seems more people target him. And lest we forget – Mr. Cataliades has the ability to touch someone with his hands and hurt them, just as he did with Jade Flower. He’s not as defenceless as Sookie is, and yet he has the same sorts of problems. Part demons aren’t totally defenceless:

“Diantha loves to hunt deer, and she has killed people in my defense.
And she and her sister even brought down a rogue vampire or two.”

All Together Dead, p. 107

Don’t mistake this for the Super!Demon phenomenon – Gladiola herself was actually bisected by a vampire in Sookie’s woods. There’s no creature who is magically untouchable – not Niall, not Eric and definitely not Sookie. Sookie doesn’t actually have increased speed and strength barring what she’s gotten from vampire blood. And even though Mr. Cataliades has telepathy, that didn’t protect his family from the predations of Jade Flower. Some problems just can’t be solved by telepathy.

In fact, Mr. Cataliades has missed quite a bit – including the Rhodes problem – not because there’s anything wrong with him as such, but rather because as a smart lawyer, he figured the most dangerous people in the room would be the vampires, not the serving staff. This is often where the greatest betrayal happens – when people are expected to slip under the radar. So if you went into a bank, and the customer in a bike helmet didn’t rob you, but the dude behind the counter did, you’d be shocked, right? Same goes with telepathy. No matter how much control you have, you’ll inevitably be caught out not listening to the right person at the right time. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be vampires as overlords – it would be telepaths.

Not only that, but there’s also something else called confirmation bias. When someone accuses Sookie of being “too stupid” and not listening to the right person, they also fail to actually praise her for the times she got it right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it written that Sookie was smart for reading Rene’s mind and predicting where he was when he attacked her. Nor have I read praise recently about how she used her telepathy for reading Donald Callaway’s mind and predicting his attack. That’s because of confirmation bias. Looking at how often Sookie has used her telepathy to her own benefit – well, it’s only when it all goes wrong that anyone notices she did it wrong. They are looking to confirm the bias that Sookie is stupid and doing it wrong. It’s their underlying premise for when they consider Sookie’s actions.

It is – I hate to tell you – completely normal to make mistakes. Even if it’s something you’ve been doing your whole life. I mean, I’m presuming most of the women in the fandom can walk. They’ve been walking for 20-50 years or so. And yet they’ve tripped. Every single one of them has tripped when they’re an adult (we don’t count the years as a toddler). To think that just because you practice at something, do it every day, have your technique down – this does not mean you will always do it right. There’s nothing perfect or infallible about the human condition. At all. Whether it’s telepathy or the simple action of walking, everyone fucks up from time to time. Just when you trip, no one is going to blow you up or beat you up as a result – so Sookie’s mistakes stick in your head as more wrong, despite the fact that you’ve epically fucked up something you’ve had control of since you were five. Sookie hasn’t had that sort of control, and yet she is held to a higher standard than the accomplished walker who occasionally trips.

Not only that, but Mr. Cataliades has been targeted unrelated to his telepathy. He had the hell hounds going after him in the last book – and that was to do with the cluviel dor. Much like Sookie has the Pelt Family vendetta – all about things that have to do with other grudges unrelated to telepathy. In fact, there’s no supernatural character that doesn’t have supernatural problems. Bill had Lorena, and Eric is just a damn magnet for trouble – Charles Twining, Hallow and the witches, Victor, Longshadow, Appius and Alexei, Hot Rain – the list is almost endless. Eric is Sookie’s greatest source of trouble, but I’ve yet to see many fangirls calling for Sookie to ditch him – they usually blame her for not knowing the bartender vetted by Eric was a bad guy – and she should have known that, because Eric is always right and smarter than her….wait….

Including Mr. Cataliades, there’s also Barry, who isn’t quite having a Hawaiian holiday as a telepath either. Even though he has ostensibly followed the path that Sookie is “supposed” to follow – getting in with the vampires and working with his telepathy every day, this has not saved him from Rhodes or any angst:

No, Barry answered, to my surprise. The scariest thing I’ve seen…
well it wasn’t Batanya.
And then he locked the communicating
door between our brains and threw away the key.

All Together Dead, p. 133

There’s nothing about being in the company of vampires that stops bad things happening to you – in fact, it exponentially increases risk – they are a society always in wars, shoot-outs and massacres – some thanks to humans, and some thanks to political tensions. Being that they’re scary enough in themselves, they’re not going to worry about the tender sensibilities of humans. I don’t believe Bill, Pam or Eric ever said to Sookie “Wow – you had to deal with a maenad – that must have been scary” because they’re too desensitised to see it that way and not all that supportive of human difficulties when dealing with violence. In fact, Barry was at Rhodes, and knew something was going down with the wait staff, and then was torn on the decision to say something to the vampires. In fact, he gives clear reason why he didn’t – and unlike Sookie, I’ve never seen him catch hell like she does for this:

“It was just, like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna get those vamps, damn them, and if we take some of their human slaves, well, that’s just too bad, we’ll live with it. Damned by association.”
“No, I didn’t know when or what they were going to do!”
All Together Dead, p. 307

Of course, if this was Sookie, I’m just about sure that the entire fandom would rain down on her head that she was the cause of the Rhodes bombing – despite the fact that it was the FotS who bombed the place – and no one else’s responsibility. Sure, Barry didn’t stop it quickly enough, didn’t speak up – but that’s as a result of not wanting to be the executioner for the vampires. But even though Barry heard those thoughts – as Sookie has explained over and over and over – people don’t think addresses, dates, times. People don’t think in narratives.

If you’re laying hopes on Mr. Cataliades teaching Sookie some sort of magic bullet technique that makes telepathy easy to handle, it’s never going to happen. It doesn’t exist in the CH world or the real world. Mr. Cataliades is not an infallible telepathy powerhouse – and he’s had decades, if not centuries to practice. Barry is not some telepathy wunderbar despite the fact that he works from vampires – and it hasn’t made him untouchable. Telepathy is a disability and it won’t stop being one just because it’s easier to manage.  If Sookie had real control instead of an illusion of control that readers seem to see, there’d be no more reason to tie her up with a supernatural creature as the HEA. She wouldn’t have to date 1000 year old killers, or 200 year old killers – she’d date some human guy and have what she’s always wanted – a normal life.