Saturday, September 8, 2012

Guest blogger: Debbie Price - Is Tom Sawyer a psychopath?

We at Fine Print are very excited to bring a series of posts by local authors. We have asked them to share their thoughts about their favorite book, something they've read recently, or the role reading has played in their lives. Debbie M. Price is the co-author with Stephen G. Michaud of The Devil's Right-Hand Man: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert Charles Browne. (Published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA). 2007.) Debbie Price will be one of the authors featured at A Tasting With Friends at Benham's Grove on September 13. For more information on this event or to buy tickets, check out this page.

Is Tom Sawyer a psychopath? Charming, manipulative, deceitful, impulsive, irresponsible, easily bored and heartlessly able to let his poor Aunt Polly mourn his presumed death, Tom could answer 'yes' to most of the questions on Robert D. Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised.
But Tom has what psychopaths don't: a conscience, even if it kicks in a bit late. Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, masterfully shows us the difference between the kind of mischievous badness that set the moral arbiters of his day a twitch and true evil of the psychopathic variety.

Which brings me to one of my favorite literary discoveries of the summer: Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls edited by R. Kent Rasmussen. On the jacket, Twain warns, "Be good and you will be lonesome." Who could pass up a tease like that? Tom, Huck and young Sam's own struggles with conscience fill the pages of this laugh-out-loud compendium of essays, speeches and excerpts. Twain's satirical wit bites at the ankles of the goody-two-shoes writers of his day with their "Sunday school books" about preternaturally perfect little boys and girls whose only reward, it seems, is to die young and go to heaven. To boys, Twain advises, "You ought never to knock your little sisters down with a club. It is better to use a cat, which is soft." And to girls, "You ought never to 'sass' old people unless they 'sass' you first."

No one gets their just desserts in these stories. A very good little boy meets a spectacularly gruesome end, while a wicked man gets what he wants from the people he abuses. (Hint: Twain knows a psychopath when he sees one.)  Hilarious bits aside, there is a seriously dark subtext here. I had to wonder, is Twain really rooting for the bad boys and girls? I could tell you what I think, but it will be a lot more fun for you to pick up Mark Twain's Book for Bad Boys and Girls and decide for yourself.

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