Should You Hunt a Doppleganger?: Redhill’s Bellevue Square

Trinity Bellwoods, the model for Bellevue Square

In Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, Jean Mason decides to track down her double/look-alike/doppleganger. One of the customers at her bookstore reports he has just seen Jean with shorter hair and in different clothes in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He reacts violently when she denies it, and, eventually is found hanging in his apartment. He’s not the only one who sees the double and ends up dead.

Jean sets out on a quest to find this other woman, who’s name is apparently Ingrid Fox, and who, it turns out, is a mystery writer.

I felt almost uniquely qualified to understand this book. (Not quite unique because my reading partner, Georgia, has the same sort of qualification.)

I can intentionally look at my image in a mirror, but if I inadvertently catch a glimpse of myself, I have to avert my eyes instantly because that’s not me I’m seeing. If I keep looking, I zone out or become dissociated. It’s as if the image is hypnotizing me. And, yes, I have had therapy. I have discovered hidden parts of me, particularly one – D, who led a life I didn’t remember. Not a very fun-filled one. A sober cult-ish life devoted to foretelling the future and trying to keep other cult-ish people out of trouble. With pretty much zero success! Knowing the future apparently does not change behavior.

Once I discovered D’s existence, I still had a long way to go before we got integrated enough that I stopped getting up in the middle of the night and putting on robes.

One thing I always knew was that I couldn’t just get rid of her. I had been assured that I was not psychotic -at great expense- but I always sensed that I could become mad if I tried to cut off D. or any of her lesser sisters.

Jean has a somewhat different problem, autoscopy. Something is wrong with her brain, somewhere between the temporal lobe and the ear. (There are several people with damaged brains in the story, oddly in the same area.) This disease causes sufferers to externalize their self-image.

In an effort to achieve integration (my interpretation), Jean begins neglecting her bookshop, her two sons and her ex-policeman (or actual police chief) husband Ian to search for Ingrid. She does this by sitting in a park, Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has been sighted. There she relates to the park’s habituées – eccentric, drug-addled, mad but lucid and just plain mad.

But she doesn’t find Ingrid. Not until the end of Part 1, when Katarina, who sells pupusas in Kensington Market and was the second person to report the doppleganger is shot. Jean is the main suspect. Only then does she spot Ingrid crossing the park. As she follows, Jean wonders if Ingrid is “the harbinger of her death”.

Then we discover Jean is actually a university lecturer who has vanished from her classes, and her husband, Ian, seems to have a problem with her owning a bookstore.

Things get weird. Jean has a mirror experience: she sees herself but she’s not in the room. While she gets closer to Ingrid -entering her home and making a gorilla sandwich for Ingrid’s daughter, and discovering Ingrid has a boo-boo in her head – she gets farther from herself. Finally, she ends up in a hospital bed, coming out of unconsciousness.

My reading partner, Georgia, said initially that she must be too stupid to understand the book. Then as we talked, she hypothesized that everyone besides Jean was really Jean. Even Jimmie, whom she breaks out of CAMH, the mental health clinic, and who goes with her on a long hazardous flight to a northern woods. There he seems to abandon her and she finds herself more than ever lost.

Obviously, the book is about identity and fluid identity at that. Jean is following breadcrumbs in a quest for herself. Does she succeed? Maybe the next book in this three part series Modern Ghosts will tell us.

I am a little worried about Michael Redhill, considering what happens to Inge Ash Wolfe in the novel, since that is his pseudonym when he writes mysteries. Maybe he just integrated Inge and Michael and all will be well with one author identity.

Bellevue Square must mean something. It won the Giller prize of $100,000. Perhaps Georgia, D and I aren’t up to the job after all.

Full Disclosure: Initially, I published Never Tell, my e-memoir, under the pseudonym of Joyce Hood, as I did this blog. I have reverted to Joyce Howe, now that all the cult-ish types are either gone or toothless.

Coming soon to an Amazon near you Hour of the Hawk, a mystery by Joyce Howe



Zero Dark Thirty: lessons in self-love

“If you lie to me, I will hurt you,” so says Dan, the CIA interrogator.

There has been much debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty was right to depict torture as the way that the U.S. got the initial information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. Either it wasn’t or the powers that be want us to believe it wasn’t, but that is not what I want to talk about.

The early scenes of the torture of detainee, Ammar, in a black op detention centre got me thinking about the nature of abuse. Jason Clarke portrays Dan, the torturer brilliantly. His Dan is bearded, exudes vitality and, of course, incites terror. The viewer readily understands his determination to uncover bin Laden’s hideout. Then the torture starts. It is, as ever, deeply personal, an intimate experience. Hands on. Ammar is naked, utterly exposed, totally isolated.  He is kept awake for 96 hours. (Is that even possible?) Or he is left in total darkness, his ears bombarded with loud rock and roll. His handlers wear black ski masks – except for Dan. He presents himself as Ammar’s friend. If Ammar tells the truth. If not, he will string him up by his arms, waterboard him, or stuff him into a box much too small and leave him there for hours. It is all up to Ammar. Eventually, Dan moves on to a friendlier phase with a cleaned up Ammar sitting down to a delicious meal and convinces him that he has already given Dan most of the information he asked for, so he might as well fill in the details.

Presumably, Dan learned these techniques in torture class and may well have practised them and been practised on. Others come by them without such training. Growing up with one presents challenges both then and afterwards.

Abusers tell you that they don’t want to hurt you. They have to because you deserve it. It is in your nature. It is punishment for what you have done. It’s because you think bad thoughts. It’s because of what you won’t do. If you stand up to the abuser, if the pain inflicted on you doesn’t bend you to his (could be her, but I’m going with his) will, others may be drawn in, smaller, perhaps, or just more vulnerable. But the abuser insists, he is really your friend, your best friend, your only friend. How could anyone else like you since you are —— (fill in the blank).

While this may be character building in the short run, it has some long term negative results. Your abuser may have fallen silent years ago. It may, in fact, be the 25th anniversary of his death and yet, he has taught you so well that you can now run the script yourself, even though you are not aware of it. So whatever happens, you find that you have not quite measured up. You’re just a bit slimy, not very nice, socially undesirable. You have, in point of fact, failed many times and in important ways.

Not only that, you are permanently pissed off. It was all grossly unfair. It was unjust. Nobody should be treated that way. Years later, you watch a movie called Death of the Maiden and identify deeply with the rage of the torture victim.

What is the answer to this self-perpetuating abuse?

Perhaps it can start simply with the idea that you have always been well-intentioned, no matter how things turned out. Perhaps it can go on to note that you have done your best and that effort needs to be respected. You have respected and even cherished others for these virtues. Why not yourself? Your love has flowed out to others, why not let it flow through you as well? There may be a hiccup of grief at the beginning, but once the furnace of self-love is stoked, it will begin to heat and heal the body so that it lets go of pain, so that it relaxes and unfolds.

Jack Reacher -Wandering Taoist

In my last post “How I developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading, I mentioned that I was hooked on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, to my dismay. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found a justification: Jack Reacher is a wandering taoist.

It was reading # 156 in Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao:Daily Meditations* the one for June 5th that clued me in to what I should have realized before.  (* Available at

Inseparable: The trunk is hollow,/But the branches live./The void is fundamental,/But the ten thousand things are diverse./ Therefore wanderers free themselves of cares/And follow Tao in great delight.

In the ensuing explanation, Deng tells us that we can know all of Tao’s manifestation by travelling through the world. All experience is the experience of Tao. Those who follow it, divest themselves of ego and ambition and follow its flow throughout the land, moving from place to place as they sense the direction of its vital flow. “These wanderers have glimpsed the void that is in them and in all things. They delight in life but never see more than the void.”

As a volunteer, I once took a phone call from a very serious young man who wanted me to tell him what Taoism was. I replied civilly, I hope, that to answer would take longer than the average phone call and, besides, it was beyond me. Short answer -Tao is the stuff of life, the energy that animates it. Taoists believe in the supremacy of nature and the necessity of living by its laws, in particular the cycles of change. They understand that whatever is full and rich will decline in time and whatever is empty and poor will rise in turn. Taoists don’t talk about God in spite of reverence. Should they search for God, they would look, not in a book, but within.

I would say they are practical and work things out as they go along rather than adhering to doctrine. This story illustrates that: a Buddhist, a Confucian and A Taoist were meditating when mosquitoes began buzzing around their ears. The Buddhist let a mosquito bite him without protest. The Confucian slapped and killed his mosquito. The Taoist waved his mosquito away. When that didn’t work, he moved to another room. When the mosquito followed him there, he killed it. Taoists  prefer not to interfere unnecessarily but act instinctively when necessary.

It seems to me that many people are Taoists at heart, although they never identify as such. Joseph Campbell, for example, warned against being co-opted by the system. Systems prevent us from personal assessment and self-determination. They also enable us to succeed in our careers, attain wealth and social standing. Opting out has rather the reverse effect.

The fictional Jack Reacher attained the rank of major as U.S. military police officer. Then in 1997, he left that system over a moral disagreement, just short of being deployed to outer Thule or its equivalent. His pension is paid into a D.C. bank and accessed on the road. He doesn’t own a car, drives badly and flies only when he can’t take a bus or hitchhike, across the Atlantic, for example. He travels the United States according to whim, once deciding to follow a diagonal line from the north east to San Diego. He carries no baggage, except that folding toothbrush, I mentioned last time. When his clothes need washing, he buys new, cheap, sturdy shirts, pants etc. and throws the old ones away. he reckons that when you factor in the cost of a washing machine, dryer and the dwelling to contain them, not to mention the soap, he still comes out ahead. Nevertheless, he is a clean person, showering thoroughly in the cheap motels he chooses, although when he still wore his Class A’s complete with Purple Heart and Silver Star, he was not above cadging first class digs at the army’s expense.

Wherever he goes- Mississippi, Kansas, Colorado, he finds trouble or it finds him. Often all he does is step down from his ride, when the locals take agin him and try to run him out of town. Usually it is a very small town with its own ingrained and deeply corrupt system. But at 6’5″ and 250 lbs. and with some serious brawling smarts, the system’s minions don’t have much success throwing him out. Pretty soon, he has identified the nature of the corruption and its victims. He believes as he was taught that the best fight is no fight at all, but when a fight is necessary, he strikes first and dirty. In The Affair, he chides the rednecks who take him on for bringing only 6 men and takes them down readily. And they aren’t even the real enemy, just wrong-headed and misinformed.

I gave up watching boxing when I was 20 and now it just makes me think ‘concussion’, but Lee Child’s fight descriptions are choreography on paper. I would love to know how he knows all this stuff. Does he practise it the way I practise tai chi?

Jack Reacher can be counted on to right some wrongs before he blows out of town and to  leave behind more wisdom than he found there, that is for those who survive. The guiltiest may meet sudden ‘accidental’ ends, which cause Reacher neither remorse nor even a backward glance. He bids goodbye to his latest woman just as readily.

Now the purists among you may object that he also has sex on a regular basis. I counter, never indiscriminately and always on the basis of respect and affection as well as healthy desire. Besides Taoists are not purists. If they claim to be, that’s your first clue.

Jack Reacher looks into the void. The void looks back. That’s okay with him.


The Knights Templar

Recently the Knights Templar are back in the news again as they have been for about eight centuries. The self-confessed Norweigan mass murderer, Anders Breivik, fancies that he’s one, apparently. Here is what I learned about the Knights Templar when I was writing my memoir, Never Tell: recovered memories of a daughter of the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar was founded in 1199 to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land and became the most important force in Palestine. There are persistent rumours that, digging deep under the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem (that would be the temple that replaced Solomon’s original, destroyed by the Romans), they came upon a great secret that they carried away. Returning home, they became wealthy and powerful and either did or did not originate Freemasonry, according to your source, and brought about a rebirth of art and literature in Europe. The Hospitaliers, a rival group, campaigned to discredit the Knights, charging them with irreligious practices and egging on Philip IV of France to launch simultaneous attacks on a Friday 13th in 1307 to destroy them. Thus Philip took the opportunity to seize their wealth and power. The pope then finished them off outside of France.  Myth and legend and Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) tell us that remnants  survived and went underground.

It is very doubtful that a Norweigan mass murderer is privy to the arcane secrets of the Knights Templar, but it seems as though there are esoteric levels of the Freemasons and other “secret” societies that also feel connected to that tradition. My father, for example, had a pin which read “Knight of the Temple Mater”, that is Knight of the Mother Temple. Certainly his club, as he called it, had a number of curious practices and at the very least tolerated, if it did not actually sanction, his unusual parenting style.