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Cold-Blooded Kindness by Barbara Oakley

01/08/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

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pub: Prometheus Books. 387 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: $26.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-419-7.

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Sometimes you don’t always know quite what you’re getting when selecting books for review from an advance catalogue. Take this book, ‘Cold-Blooded Kindness’ by Barbara Oakley. It was paired with ‘Kindness In a Cruel World’ by Nigel Barber as an examination of empathy. However, in Oakley’s book this is explained in brief detail before giving a more in-depth examination of Carole Elizabeth Alden who killed her third husband, Marty Sessions, at the end of July 2006.

Alden’s behaviour suggests her to be a manipulative charming psychopath with certain repeat behaviour patterns. The fact that Sessions didn’t leave her like her previous husbands resulted in her pre-mediated act of getting a pistol – allegedly for shooting coyotes when a rifle would be better from the gunsmith – and shooting him twice allegedly in self-defence, one of these bullets was in the back. Oakley points out that Alden’s habit of twisting her story to whom she is talking to caused her to examine things in detail which is presented in this book. Despite over the million and a half Google hits on the subject, this is the first time I came across this case so I can’t speak for whether Oakley has any biasness on the subject. I do find it interesting that Alden has many people who says she’s a nice person as indeed the same thing about Sessions. Considering she was into sadomasochism and him a former prisoner recovering from a drug addiction hardly puts either of them in a good light. I mean, it’s possible to be seen good over some things and bad in others and people to overlook things they’d rather not see.

I’m not going to discuss the case further than that. You’ll have to read the book yourself. However, let’s focus on the topic I’m particularly interested in and that is empathy which is covered most extensively in the opening chapters of this book. Probably the most important area lies in two forms of empathy as Oakley sees it. The first is compassionate and concern with a dose of sympathy and if someone is in a hole to urge them to safety. The second is more of a personal distress over matters and going down into the hole and keeping him company, which might not get either of them out of the hole (sic). Which is likely to be the best thing to do?

I think there’s a grey area between the two. I mean, if the chap was trapped or dying and I could get out again, then yes, I would go down and either attempt to free or stay ‘til death or even run off to get help. Circumstances in such events wouldn’t necessarily depend on how empathic a person is. You would have to be pretty cold-blooded to just walk away or not be affected by events or do something to help.

Empathy is sharing the pain or happiness of others irrespective of your own emotional reaction. I think the point Oakley was making from the Alden case, even if she doesn’t break it down as such, was how a psychopathic personality can manipulate the empathy of others. We should be grateful that there aren’t more psychopaths around. I should point out that not all psychopaths are murderers but there are some businesses where making cold-blooded decisions irrespective of the effects on people’s lives tends to work in their favour which you often see from people at the top.

I think there is something that can be learnt from this book which can be useful for SF writers is in the examination of different personality traits that wouldn’t be the same as the writers themselves. All too often, new writers tend to use themselves as the template for their characters. To understand what makes a different type of personality ticks will always opens up potentially different characters although I doubt if Alden would be used as a template. Oakley has written other books and I suspect her upcoming book, ‘Pathological Altruism’, will dig deeper into this subject.

GF Willmetts

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