So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: Jenny Nordberg

★★★★½

The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys

Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s the message of this astonishing work by the Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, who worked with women in and around Kabul in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When she was told, discreetly, that a contact’s six-year-old son was actually a cross-dressed girl, Nordberg discovered that this was merely the tip of an iceberg. Her enquiries led her to unearth an open secret in Afghan society: an entire social practice, hitherto  unreported in the wider world, of bacha posh, literally meaning ‘dressed as a boy’. Mixing biography, psychology and anthropology, this is a deeply illuminating journey into the social constructs of an unfamiliar world.

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As Nature Made Him: John Colapinto

★★★★

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl

Following on from Geniethis book explores another case which featured prominently in my A level Psychology textbook. It’s one of the most famous stories in the canon, a case which has been used on both sides of the nature-nurture debate, and one which does more than any other to prompt outrage at the medical establishment. It tells the tale of twin baby boys, born in Winnipeg in 1967 and admitted at eight months old for circumcision. When error, either mechanical or human, caused catastrophic burns to the penis of the elder twin, doctors advised that the only option was to castrate the child and raise him as a girl. His distraught parents followed this advice. This is the story of David Reimer: a story of dizzying medical hubris and humbling resilience, made deeply poignant by a tragic coda which postdated the publication of this study.

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Genie: A Scientific Tragedy: Russ Rymer

★★★★

When choosing A levels, I was advised to demonstrate some scientific aptitude alongside my arts-dominated curriculum. I chose Psychology which, despite some erratic teaching, opened my eyes to a whole world of incredible case studies. Three in particular have stayed with me: Philip Zimbardo’s Stamford Prison Experiment; Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority; and the story of Genie, a child discovered in November 1970, who spent her first thirteen years in enforced isolation from virtually all human contact. I had no idea, though, that her life had been discussed at any length outside academic textbooks and conferences. When I stumbled across this book the other day, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with the details of this distressing case, which has haunted me ever since I first read about it in my schoolbooks.

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The Psychopath Test: Jon Ronson

★★★★

A few weeks ago I met up with a friend for lunch and she enthused to me about a book she’d been reading: The Psychopath Test. I was peripherally aware of it, but hadn’t read it. ‘You should give it a go,’ my friend said. But I still felt unwilling: there was one thing that had been troubling me ever since I’d first heard of the book. ‘I don’t think I want to,’ I said awkwardly. ‘What if it turns out that I am one?’ My friend laughed at me: ‘Don’t worry. The fact you’re anxious about it means you’re not one.’ That’s a relief.

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