The talk was fine, she said, but did you have to read that sentence? I didn’t know what she meant. I’d read for ten minutes, give or take, and had covered several pages and many sentences of the book. Which sentence was she referring to? The one about the towel, she said, smiling through the irritated creases in her face, almost pitying my confusion. The towel? What was wrong with the towel? But she didn’t answer. She said I could have left it out. Skipped over it, I think was her expression. Why would I leave out bits of my own book? Why would I skip over details that matter? Now we were both confused. Several of the undergraduates came to complain, she said. I think she also used the word unsettled, although when I retold the story I chose the word traumatised. Not that this made a lot of difference. There I was, reading pages from my chapter about Joâo Faria, a friend from Luanda who was physically and psychologically tortured by the MPLA government in the 1970s. I read (p.115) the details of how they ‘broke his nose then made him suck up his own blood from the floor’, of how he was ‘forced to remove staples from the elbow of another prisoner who had been tortured with a stapler’, and how he was subjected to the n’guelelo or eastern torture. I then read Amnesty International’s description of this torture, which involved: ‘tying the victims’ arms and legs together behind their backs, usually with wet rope that contracts; these cords being sometimes also tied to the victims’ testicles, then attached to two curved sticks around the victims’ heads, the two sticks perhaps being tightened by a tourniquet putting tremendous pressure on the victims’ temples’. No one, apparently, had a problem with this section. This was fine. The bit that wasn’t fine was this bit here, the bit about the towel (p.117):

Faria towel

Travelling around the US, speaking at various colleges, I told other academics and students about the curious incident of the towel in the middle of the African studies seminar. I vented my frustration at what seemed to me to be an excessively self-centered response not only to my reading, but to the matter of Faria’s life and trauma. In the Name of the People is a book that investigates the deaths of thousands of people, and the imprisonment and torture of others caught up in the events of the 27 May 1977 in Angola. To be offended by the description of a towel being opened and closed in the midst of all this misery and memory is curious, no? In response, a number of professors spoke of the culture of sexism and rape on campus in the US. Stanford, I was told more than once, was the worst of all.

Certainly, Stanford has a problem. I was stunned and saddened and confused by the way students and staff spoke about their relationships with each other, especially when they were also members of the opposite sex. Trust was absent. Women were afraid of men, and men were afraid of how women would interpret even their most mundane behaviour. Everyone, I was told, avoids touching everyone else. Everyone avoids conversations that might enter the realm of the family — for example, how is your wife? — and if, somehow, chatter strays that way, abrupt and awkward efforts must be made to intervene immediately, or (worst case scenario) to deconstruct at a later point with the help of a therapist. That was another thing: everyone, but everyone, had a therapist. Caveat: I was only there for a couple of days, so I am no expert. But I was struck, from the moment I arrived in Palo Alto, by the strangeness & un-human quality I felt throughout my stay. Stepford Wives. Solaris. Guinea pigs. Robots. Science. Spectrums. I don’t know what I am doing here. I don’t feel entirely safe. I’m glad I’m not staying here. Something’s going on beneath the surface, or is it above the surface? I don’t know and I’m not equipped to work it out. The instinct says it’s dangerous. Or hilarious, and ridiculous, and terrifying.

 

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