True Crime and Truth Claims

portrait drawing of Grace Marks and James McDermott


By Sarah Griswold

I recently finished watching the Netflix Original series Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s book by the same name. I haven’t yet read the book (I do plan to), but would I have understood or enjoyed the series differently if I had?

The series is marketed as an historical fiction. It would seem that this term is self-contradictory. If fiction is by definition a falsehood, why pair it with “historical” which elicits ideas of fact and truth? The very ideas of these terms contradict one another. But I would propose a more complex reframing. What if it is not truth, but rather truth claims? Whenever a history is told, it’s always in the form of some type of narrative — be it literary like in the form of a book or in physical sites like the well at Cawnpore or other memorials. Narratives necessarily exclude some information and embellish in certain areas for the sake of comprehension. The term “historical” doesn’t necessarily imply complete truth, but rather truth to the person telling the history. So perhaps the term “historical fiction” makes perfect sense.  And this is precisely what we’re given with Alias Grace, a historical fiction that at once claims truth and falsehood. But why has it been classified as historical fiction and not true crime? And what difference does that classification make?

When I first came across the series, I was hardly familiar. I watched the first episode knowing only that it was set in Canada during the 19th century. And I was hooked. The story itself feels novel and yet familiar. As a casual fan of true crime, I’m familiar with how the story is structured. Something bad happened. We don’t really know what, but we do know who has been blamed. We’re then taken through a serialized journey to discover what happened and who did it. Or maybe we’re left hanging, having to come to our own conclusions. In each episode one major twist and several minor clues are revealed — breadcrumbs on the proverbial path. In Alias Grace episodes two and three seem to divert from the path until connections are made later on that lead to the peak of the narrative hill.

It was around these episodes that I started to google and learn more about the series. This was when I learned the book on which it was based was written by Margaret Atwood. Personally (and I know this is controversial), I’m not that into Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, set it aside, and didn’t particularly care to return. This is not to say that I don’t recognize its value and contribution to popular culture. I just doubt I would’ve watched Alias Grace if I had known going in about its connection to Atwood. Our own preconceived notions of what a thing is determine how we consume or interact with it. Starting this series with fewer preconceived notions allowed me to give it a fair shake. Later, once I had done more reading, I learned Atwood based her novel on real events, keeping as close to the historical record as possible. This becomes much more complicated in analyzing Atwood’s own understanding of the events. What were her preconceived notions? Why did she interpret the court records in certain ways? These are all important questions to explore.

But this all leads me to wonder, why has Alias Grace been classified as historical fiction rather than true crime? Are true crime narratives somehow not historical fiction? Atwood seemingly adhered tightly to what might be considered the “facts” of the case. Perhaps it has to do with when the murders and trial took place. Perhaps it had to do with (spoiler alert) Mary Whitney’s apparent possession of Grace Marks. Perhaps it even has to do with Atwood’s identification as a fiction writer rather than a reporter or historian. Or perhaps all of these and other factors I haven’t even thought of play a role in this classification. But at the end of the day does the classification of Alias Grace as historical fiction rather than true crime effect how we interact with it? For me (and probably you), the answer is a hard and resounding yes.


Photo credit: Special Collections Toronto Public Library via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ignatian Yoga?


By Sarah Griswold

Recently, while I was sitting on my couch, scrolling through social media with Netflix playing in the background, I came across this post on Facebook. At first I was taken aback. Ignatian spirituality and yoga didn’t seem to make sense together in my immediate reaction. Then I remembered all the other things I had seen like it in recent years — SoulCore and Holy Yoga among them. Ignatian Yoga actually isn’t any different than these other forms of Christian influenced yoga. The only thing that was new to me was seeing something that was both explicitly Catholic and explicitly yoga. So what is Ignatian Yoga anyway? And what were my preconceptions of these terms that contributed to my initial surprise?

First, “Ignatian” refers to a particular type of Catholic spirituality founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which now has more than 16,000 members. One of the Jesuits’ foci is on spiritual direction. It follows, then, that their retreats (including this one for Ignatian Yoga) would feature talks on Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction. While the Jesuits (like all groups) face opposition to their ideas from time to time, the idea of Ignatian spirituality seems fairly straightforward — at least in concept.

More complicated, however, is the idea of yoga. What is yoga? Is it religious? I vividly remember a yoga instructor once beginning an academic class on the subject by saying, “Before we begin, you all know yoga’s not a religion, right?” For the purposes of teaching yoga as an academic class at a public university in the United States, this claim makes perfect sense. By declaring yoga to not be a religion, the instructor was intentionally creating a barrier between yoga as good exercise and yoga as religious to avoid trouble under the first amendment. But the religiosity of yoga is actually a lot more complicated than that. The history of yoga in the United States is complex, but includes a particular trajectory of secularization — or does it? Andrea Jain has an interesting and concise book about this history. Suffice it to say that “yoga is not religious” is quite a bold claim.* To many (particularly outside of the U.S.), yoga is religious. Some see it as a positive, others see it as a threat to their own religious life. But none of this explains why the words “Ignatian” and “yoga” were put next to each other to describe this retreat.

By putting these two terms together the Jesuits running this particular retreat are making a few implicit claims just in calling it “Ignatian Yoga.” Because Ignatian spirituality and Christianity more generally act exclusively and reject non-Christian religion, “Ignatian yoga” can only exist if yoga is considered to not be religious. In this case, yoga provides the added component of exercise. Therefore, yoga could hardly be religious as Ignatian spirituality already fulfills that role. But beyond the question of whether or not these things are “religious,” we also see a combination of things from two seemingly different cultures.

In New York, the Jesuits ostensibly participate in and produce western and American cultures. On the other hand, yoga’s roots are often placed in Indian culture. From this perspective, how do we wind up with Ignatian Yoga if the two terms come from such different cultures? The answer here lies in how we conceptualize culture. Because of the more modern adaptations of yoga into American culture, the combination of Ignatian spirituality and yoga is actually not all that surprising. Cultures are often defined by their difference. So the idea of Ignatian yoga becomes possible first by the adoption of yoga into American culture itself. Then, after its recreation as non-religious exercise, it can be adopted into the folds of of Ignatian spirituality at this retreat (and other products like it).

The answer to how we wind up with “Ignatian Yoga,” then, seems to say a lot more about the person answering this question than anything else. So at first, I was surprised because this concept was outside of what I am most often exposed to. My preconceived notions of Ignatian spirituality and yoga were exclusive of one another. But as I thought about it more, I realized that this is precisely how culture is continually reproduced and recreated. After this brief pause, I kept scrolling through Facebook.


*For a fun introduction to the complications in this claim, I recommend Rough Translation‘s “Om Alone In India.”

The Human Tribe

By Sarah Griswold

What does it mean to greet someone in a different language? In this video, President Obama does just that, over and over again. The repetitive nature elicited by editing these clips together suggests an effort on his part to learn these greetings. This effort is further emphasized by the moment where he doesn’t get it quite right and admits to having practiced. He later appeals to the human tribe, citing familiarity and likeness across different cultures. Of course, the video produces a reminiscence for Obama’s presidency, but I can’t help but wonder: what is this “human tribe?”

Like The Family of Man, this video evokes feelings of camaraderie and a natural human similarity. This effort to learn a simple aspect of another culture highlights similarity through the difference of speech. These are greetings, after all. The similarity is inherent. The difference lies within expression both in language and in culture. The viewer is expected to feel that these differences are negligible, allowing for this “human tribe” to form.

Learning about each other and finding similarity through our cultural difference is presented as the ideal. But the limitations on adopting other cultures is reinforced. The video does not show Obama wearing non-Western clothing. It does not show him participating in events that would be jarring to an American audience. Rather, Obama remains dressed in a suit and plays with a ball. He sees the sights and pats babies’ heads. After all, that which represents American culture is not undercut by the presentation, at least to some.

Posted on the Facebook page USA New Today, a page that regularly posts content depicting Obama in a favorable manner, this video is presented as a nostalgic piece: something to remind viewers of the good times we all had under our former president. But those who do not remember Obama’s presidency positively may have a hard time getting the same thing out of this video. Obama was often perceived as being too soft on other nations and was often criticized for it. To those who remember Obama’s presidency as largely negative, this video may serve as a reminder of their frustrations. In fact, they may read the opposite of the points I have made above. They may focus on the difference rather than the similarities that the video attempts to highlight. So maybe there isn’t one “human tribe.” Maybe, instead, difference cannot be wiped out by similarity.

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies reads The Family of Man in a similar manner. He concludes that this presentation and assumption of likeness creates an alibi for the actions of man, rendering them harmless. If we are able to focus on the camaraderie and the interactions of cultures presented in this video, we are then able to ignore and dismiss other actions that may be deemed unfavorable.

Returning to the video’s presentation of Obama’s many greetings, the usage of these phrases can be read as a myth. In his concluding essay “Myth Today,” Barthes presents a method of understanding myth as a second-order semiological system. The chart he provides to explain this looks like this:

chart for Myth Today

So when, for example, Obama says “Grüß Gott,” he is saying much more than “God bless.” On the first-order of language, Obama makes the sounds of the phrase, forming the signifier. That which is signified is the meaning “God bless.” Together they form the sign which the audience hears and understands. But beyond its obvious meaning, each greeting demonstrates something else. The sign itself signifies something more. The audience doesn’t just understand the greeting. They understand that Obama has made an effort to be accepted with kindness and open arms. This is something you can almost see on Angela Merkel’s face as she processes the sounds she has just heard.

On the most basic level, we are presented with a video of President Obama greeting audiences in other languages. Beyond that, audiences within the video hear Obama and receive (perhaps to varying degree) his message of commonality. But another point is this: viewers will understand one of two things. Either they will understand that the former president’s era is to be missed for his outreach to other nations (the view encouraged by the video’s producers), or his opponents will see this effort as a symbol of his weakness.

The video may seem inconsequential to many. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people saw this in their feed and kept scrolling after less than a second. But videos, images, and texts such as these are doing a great deal of work to produce a particular affect on their audience. While the intent may have been to use the rhetoric in this video to convey a nostalgia for the former president’s affinity towards non-American cultures, there is much more heavy lifting behind the scenes.