Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What can we do with awareness of the world's unfairness?

Some say the universe is balanced and has some justice or fairness woven into it, a righting of wrongs in the end. This idea has obvious appeal to those who are suffering. But what can it mean to those who experience joy? Does it mean that their joy will eventually be taken away? Kathleen Dean Moore:

I’m one of the votes for caution, because I go through life slightly unnerved by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I half believe him when he says that Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good. For everything you gain, you lose something. Nature hates a monopoly. This makes sense to me. I think it’s at least plausible that everyone’s life finds its own equilibrium, a natural balance of joy and pain. But if happiness has to come out even with sorrow in the end, then I am in big trouble. I try to take my joy in tiny sips, hoping my sorrow will be equally shallow. But usually I end up swallowing happiness in gluttonous gulps, believing all the while in justice, and so rejoicing at little setbacks and petty unpleasantness, courting small disasters, hoping to eat away at the deficit. I know that if the universe is as reciprocal as Emerson says, I have already had more than my fair share of happiness, and in the end I will have a tremendous, bone-crushing debt to pay.

If the universe is fair in the end, then perhaps this would mean that there is no real evil, since all injuries will somehow be compensated. Many people go about their lives as if they believe this, but upon reflection, it appears obviously untrue. There are many who suffer and are never soothed. Lance Morrow, responding to the sort of Emersonian influence that Moore raised above:

Americans are Emersonians, and Henry James was right when he said of Emerson, "A ripe unconsciousness of evil is the sweetest sign by which we know him."
Once conscious of evil, or at least of unfairness, one may become, as Jennifer Finney Boylan put it, are "angry at the whole brutally unfair world, which distributes its blessings and burdens so unequally."

Confronted with awareness of unfairness, what can we do? If we are well off, it is not because we deserve it in any ultimate sense. Our fortune is mere accident. We might just as easily have been cursed. This is precisely the import of unfairness. To respond to awareness of others' deprivation with glee and possessiveness about our own gains and privileges is to be like a person in a death camp who is smug that today he has not been selected for execution. Primo Levi:

Now everyone is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as not to waste the last drops of the soup; a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.

Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer.

But if being pleased with our own temporary deserts is not a sufficient response, what is? Here is one potential lead: Nicolas Berdyaev wrote that "Boehme says that suffering is the source of the creation of things."


Kathleen Dean Moore. Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water. New York: Harvest, 1995. pp. 17-18.

Lance Morrow. Evil: An Investigation. New York: Basic Books, 2003. p 8.

Jennifer Finney Boylan. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. p 298.

Primo Levi. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Translated from the Italian Se questo e un uomo (1958) by Stuart Woolf. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. pp. 129-130.

Nicolas Berdyaev. The Divine and the Human. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949. p 66.


Long-exposure photo by 'Gphoto', 2006. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The planets and stars beyond us, the germs within us

A "macro view" from Edwin Tenney Brewster:

As we comprehend no man's religion until we know his world-view, so we understand no man's world-view till we discover his astronomy. The earth itself is for each of us the stage on which he sets his opinions. The sun and the planets and the stars are the background against which his drama of history is played.

A "micro view" from Margulis and Sagan:

The environment is so interwoven with bacteria, and their influence is so pervasive, that there is no really convincing way to point your finger and say this is where life ends and this is where the inorganic realm of nonlife begins.

Edward Abbey on seeing the synergy and inventing God from it:

Fred explained his theory of irrational numbers, binary electives and organic equations. Would lead, he argued, when he found the key connection, to a kind of cybernetic thinking machine that could digest numerical data in such quantity and at such velocity that science itself would make a quantum leap into whole new dimensions of power over nature.

Got too much power already, Bob argued...

Power is our destiny, Fred argued in return. We are bound for Andromeda and beyond. The Earth is but a footstool to the stars. God is our goal, God is our fate, and by God if God doesn't exist we shall create the S.O.B.

Neale Donald Walsch reports having this conversation with God:

God: Do you see the balance?
Neale Donald Walsch: Of course. It is ingenious.
God: Thank you. Now please quit destroying it.


Edwin Tenney Brewster. The Understanding of Religion Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. p 37.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution Foreword by Lewis Thomas. California: University of California Press, 1986, 1997. pp. 92-93.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p 47

Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations With God: An Uncommon Dialogue. Book 3. Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Getting to pacifism

War turns life into death. Immanuel Kant wrote 220 years ago:

It follows that a war of extermination, in which the destruction of both parties and of all justice can result, would permit perpetual peace only in the vast burial ground of the human race.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that violence moves us backward from our intended direction:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.

War is wasteful and makes less sense every day in our hyperconnected society. Umberto Eco, writing 24 years ago of "instant information":

There is a more radical way of thinking about war: in merely formal terms, in terms of internal consistency, by reflecting on its conditions of possibility – the conclusion being that you cannot make war because of the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged. * * * It is an intellectual duty to proclaim the inconceivability of war. Even if there were no alternative solutions. * * * War cannot be justified, because – in terms of the rights of the species – it is worse than a crime. It is a waste.

Pragmatically, people often feel forced into war. Jonathan Glover, writing about genocide:

The moral debate about the use of the [atomic] bombs is about two central issues. Could the war have been stopped by other means? And, if there were no alternative ways of stopping the war, would this justify dropping these bombs?

The people involved in fighting wars are generally doing so for a reason. They are not only commanded to fight; they believe in some underlying myth that gives them a reason to fight. Yuval Noah Harari observes:

However, an imagined order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It requires some true believers as well. ... A single priest often does the work of a hundred soldiers far more cheaply and effectively. Moreover, no matter how efficient bayonets are, somebody must wield them. Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe? Of all human collective activities, the one most difficult to organise is violence. To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

How, then, does one change the underlying beliefs and still be able to negotiate the hard facts driving the originally perceived need for violence to arrive at a functional pacifism? Thomas Berry invokes a "cosmology of peace," which is a structure for myth-making, and offers a lens through which to see that there can be "violent aspects" and a "state of tension" in arriving at "creative resolution" of problems, yet these can be overall folded into the cosmology of peace.

My proposal is that the cosmology of peace is presently the basic issue. The human must be seen in its cosmological role just as the cosmos needs to be seen in its human manifestation. This cosmological context has never been more clear than it is now, when everything depends on a creative resolution of our present antagonisms. I refer to a creative resolution of antagonism rather than to peace in deference to the violent aspects of the cosmological process. Phenomenal existence itself seems to be a violent mode of being. Also, there is a general feeling of fullness bordering on decay that is easily associated with peace. Neither violence nor peace in this sense is in accord with the creative transformations through which the more splendid achievements of the universe have taken place. As the distinguished anthropologist A.I. Kroeber once indicated: The ideal situation for any individual or any culture is not exactly "bovine placidity." It is, rather, "the highest state of tension that the organism can bear creatively."


Immanuel Kant. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, 1795. Section 1, No. 6.
Martin Luther King Jr., quoted in The New York Times, quoted in The Week, March 27, 2015, p. 17.
Umberto Eco, "Reflections on War" (1991). In Five Moral Pieces, translated by Alastair McEwen. Harcourt, Inc: 2002. pp 6, 16-7.
Jonathan Glover. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2001 (originally 1999). p 105.
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (2014) Tantor Audio, 2015.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988. p 219

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Americans' dysfunctional relationship with shopping malls

Shopping for its own sake, not to buy anything necessary, is a kind of wealth destruction. Sam McKeen wrote:

...most Americans would consider potlatch feasts, in which Northwest Indian tribes systematically destroy their wealth, to be irrational and mythic but would consider the habit of browsing malls and buying expensive things we do not need (conspicuous consumption) to be a perfectly reasonable way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

There is an economic contradiction embedded in it. The economy needs people to spend. Yet, when consumers overspend, they burden themselves with debt and can spend no more, and the economic system falls to threads. In this way, shopping may destroy not only the individual's own wealth, but the entire nation's. David Segal wrote:

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem: We are reliably informed that whatever part of the economic crisis can’t be pinned on Wall Street – or on mortgage-related financial insanity – can be pinned on consumers who overspent. But personal consumption amounts to some 70 percent of the American economy. So if we don’t spend, we don’t recover. Fiscal health isn’t possible until money is again sloshing into cash registers, including those at this mall and every other retailer.

In other words, shopping was part of the problem and now it’s part of the cure. And once we’re cured, economists report, we really need to learn how to save, which suggests that we will need to quit shopping again.

So the mall we married has become the toxic spouse we can’t quit, though we really must quit, but just not any time soon. The mall, for its part, is wounded by our ambivalence and feels financially adrift.

Like any other troubled marriage, this one needs counseling. And pronto, because even a trial separation at a moment as precarious as this could get really ugly.

Sometimes this wealth destruction ritual is carefree and contented, but other times it is driven by peer pressure and other external compulsions, or even worse, by an internal void. Jim Wallis wrote:

The poverty of middle-class life is a sign of the crisis. Our shopping mall culture keeps consumers busy in an age of hitherto-unknown materialism fraught with emptiness, loneliness, anxiety, and a fundamental loss of meaning. A most revealing sign of the crisis is the blank, sad, or angry looks in the eyes of the young who congregate both on thee wasting corners of urban streets and in the wasteful corridors of suburban shopping centers. But a moral focus on consumerism makes both liberals and conservatives uncomfortable, perhaps because both sides are so deeply caught up in it.

Malls present a facade of having everything under control. To sell brands, they must sell the double-edged idea of contentment: the consumer must be discontent and must buy the product to attain contentment. The mall is a place where this situation is clearly organized and the ansewr is easily achievable. Amy Fisher wrote:

Within these weatherless bubbles of artificial ease – the clothing shops, photo shops, shoe stores, bookstores, music shops, movie theaters, drugstores, and fast-food restaurants all lined up, open and welcoming, side by side – teenagers spent their weekends, spent their allowances, met and mated, got their first jobs. As malls organized suburban landscapes during the very same years that galloping recession, unemployment, and drug use were disorganizing suburban homes, it would strike more than a few social scientists as ironic that the more controlled and sheltered teenagers' public environments grew, the more challenged and chaotic their personal ones became.

Some people reach a point of inner peace where recreational shopping becomes irrelevant. Ann Brenoff wrote:

In any case, it [shopping] just stopped being fun and she just stopped doing it. I realized this past weekend that, at age 64, I may have reached this milestone myself. Truth is, the Great Recession stole the wind from my shopping sails and I never fully recovered it anyway. Walking around a crowded mall is far less appealing to me than walking down a hiking trail. And spending hard-earned money on things I don't really need and may not ever use is something I don't ever do anymore.
* * *
But it did get me thinking how shopping may indeed be something that we just grow out of – and that can occur at any age. When we leave it behind, we move ourselves to a healthier place. After all, why does anyone need to spend money on themselves for affirmation of their worth and value? And that's pretty much what sport shopping is. Out-growing your need to shop has less to do with no longer being able to find age-appropriate clothes and more to do with simply becoming comfortable with who you are, satisfied with yourself and what you already have.


Sam McKeen's Preface to Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989. p. xii. (This is a revised version of Telling Your Story, originally published 1973.)
"Our Love Affair with Malls Is on the Rocks." David Segal. New York Times. Jan. 31, 2009.
Jim Wallis. The Soul of Politics: Beyond "Religious Right" and "Secular Left". New York: Harvest, 1995. p. 9.
Amy Fisher, with Sheila Weller. Amy Fisher: My Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. p. 106.
Do We Ever Outgrow Shopping? Ann Brenoff. Huffington Post. March 20, 2014.

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act will sunset June 1, 2015

On Jan. 4, 2006, then-Vice President Dick Cheney said:
Another vital step the President took in the days following 9/11 was to authorize the National Security Agency to intercept a certain category of terrorist-linked international communications...If we’d been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon. They were in the United States, communicating with al-Qaeda associates overseas. But we didn’t know they were here plotting until it was too late.

Tim Grieve countered that "the Bush administration was indeed 'able to do this before 9/11.' If the administration wanted to listen in on the phone conversations of suspected al-Qaida members lurking in the United States before 9/11, all it had to do was ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to do so. It didn't even need to ask first: The law allowed the administration to start listening first and seek a warrant after the fact." Grieve added that, given that Bush wanted to waive the requirement for a warrant on the grounds that it might be necessary to prevent terrorism, then he might have had the foresight to do so during "the 200 or so other days that passed between the afternoon he took office and the morning that the planes struck," rather than after the fact.

In February 2011, three provisions of the PATRIOT Act were up for renewal but fell short of the two-thirds majority vote required in Congress. The bill passed Congress a few months later, in May, and was signed by Obama on the day that the provisions would have expired. The extension was for four years.

A CNN article explained:
One of the three provisions, Section 206 of the Patriot Act, provides for roving wiretap surveillance of targets who try to thwart Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance. Without such roving wiretap authority, investigators would be forced to seek a new court order each time they need to change the location, phone or computer that needs to be monitored.

Another provision, Section 215, allows the FBI to apply to the FISA court to issue orders granting the government access to any tangible items in foreign intelligence, international terrorism and clandestine intelligence cases.

The third provision, Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004, closes a loophole that could allow individual terrorists not affiliated with specific organizations to slip through the cracks of FISA surveillance. Law enforcement officials refer to it as the "lone wolf" provision.

These three provisions are scheduled to sunset once again on June 1, 2015.

“On October 23, 2001, I introduced the USA PATRIOT Act to combat terror in a post 9/11 world. The narrowly tailored bill included sunsets on controversial provisions like Section 215, which was intended to give the government the ability to secure ‘any tangible thing’ connected to specific terrorism investigations and potentially ripe for abuse. As is now common knowledge, following major leaks of government documents, the Bush and Obama administrations took the limited power Congress intended and went rogue. If we knew during any subsequent reauthorizations what we now know about Section 215’s blatant misinterpretation, Congress would have allowed it to sunset. And if it’s not fixed by the 2015 reauthorization, Congress will.
* * *
The basic idea behind American search and seizure law is that you can’t investigate unless you can first provide at least some articulable reason to do so. Investigations can’t just be arbitrary.
* * *
For these reasons Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) and I introduced the USA FREEDOM Act. This bill would end bulk collection under Section 215, ensure national security letters are not used for bulk collection, reform the secret intelligence court and provide greater transparency into the government’s surveillance activities.”
Nadia Kayyali wrote:
Section 215 is an obvious target for reform. As the pro-NSA rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, it’s important to remember that we have little to no evidence that bulk collection of telephone call records under Section 215 has ever stopped a terrorist attack.

In fact, even the administration agrees—it’s not necessary. The White House admitted that the government can accomplish its goals without bulk telephone records collection.


"Dick Cheney, domestic spying and "false comforts" before 9/11." Tim Grieve. Jan. 4, 2006. [Source unknown; possibly published in Salon.com]
"House defeats bill extending Patriot Act provisions until December." Deirdre Walsh, CNN. Feb. 8, 2011. “I Wrote the PATRIOT Act (Now Let’s Fix It).” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). Stand, the magazine of the ACLU, Summer 2014, p. 10.
"Section 215 of the Patriot Act Expires in June. Is Congress Ready?" Nadia Kayyali. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Jan. 29, 2015.


Underside of Ericsson's telephone Ericofon "Kobra". Photo by Holger.Ellgaard, 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What kind of information do we most need, 'spiritually'?

A common complaint about the increasing availability of information and the speed at which it travels is that our minds cannot hold it all. Three decades ago, Jeremy Rifkin wrote:

Strangely enough, it seems that the more information that is made available to us, the less well informed we become. Decisions become harder to make, and our world appears more confusing than ever. Psychologists refer to this sate of affairs as "information overload," a neat clinical phrase behind which sits the Entropy Law. As more and more information is beamed at us, less and less of it can be absorbed, retained, and exploited. The rest accumulates as dissipated energy or waste. The buildup of this dissipated energy is really just social pollution, and it takes its toll in the increase in mental disorders of all kinds, just as physical waste eats away at our physical well-being.

The sharp rise in mental illness in this country has paralleled the information revolution. That's not to suggest that the increase in mental illness is due solely to information overload. Other contributing factors include such things as genetics, spatial crowding, increased dislocation and migration of populations, and the stresses of environmental pollution.

Part of what we need to do is to decide what information is important. This includes our own cultural and family history, and building culture by participating actively in it. Starhawk, in 1987:

To be disconnected from our past, our history, is to be disempowered. In consumer culture, we consume time and forget what has gone before. We do not value the stories, the experiences, of the elders. But when we devalue their lives, we devalue our own, for at best, we can hope to someday become old. The elders may offer us perspectives we need in times of change.
* * *
A life-loving culture that escaped the repression of the Censor would be expressive, erotic, alive with art, music, poetry, dance, and ritual; diverse, not monolithic, drawing on many rhythms, many languages; active, not passive. Entertainment would cease to be a spectacle we consume, and become what we do for each other and ourselves; the stories we tell, the rituals we create, our own songs and our own laughter.

Something else important is what some call "spirit," "sacred," or "enchantment." From a more secular perspective, this is related to the urge to pursue one's passions girded by one's core beliefs and to experience life in a state of wonder, joyful awe, and calm resignation. Information overload can take us away from this center of who we really are and what we really want to do while we are here. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in 2006:

We live in a world in which a technocratic rationality has replaced an awareness of spirit, flattening the way we experience nature and each other. * * * Most of us have learned to accommodate to a world that has been flattened, made one-dimensional, disenchanted, despiritualized. And yet, we feel an abiding hunger because human beings are theotropic – they turn toward the sacred – and that dimension in us cannot be fully extinguished.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in 2010, reflected on the decision to choose to commit herself romantically to just one man. We often feel pressured to maximize our happiness, she mused. And how do we know what to choose, since we cannot choose everything?

...I had always been taught that the pursuit of happiness was my natural (even national) birthright. It is the emotional trademark of my culture to seek happiness. Not just any kind of happiness, either, but profound happiness, even soaring happiness. And what could possibly bring a person more soaring happiness than romantic love?
* * *
The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice. (I have a friend who second-guesses herself so compulsively that her husband jokes her autobiography will someday be titled I Should've Had the Scampi.) Equally disquieting are the times when we do make a choice, only to later feel as though we have murdered some other aspect of our being by settling on one single concrete decision. By choosing Door Number Three, we fear we have killed off a different – but equally critical – piece of our soul that could only have been made manifest by walking through Door Number One or Door Number Two.

Umair Haque blogged in 2011 that true happiness, profound contentment, is probably not found in the more-is-better, passive consumption model of "hedonic opulence" that the advertising economy presses upon us, but rather in a more active appreciation of smaller, more meaningful things.

In short, I see an outcomes gap: a yawning chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia.

The economy we have today will let you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check derivative prices on your latest smartphone, and drive your giant SUV down the block to buy a McMansion on hypercredit. It's a vision of the good life that I call (a tiny gnat standing on the shoulders of the great Amartya Sen) hedonic opulence. And it's a conception built in and for the industrial age: about having more. Now consider a different vision: maybe crafting a fine meal, to be accompanied by local, award-winning microbrewed beer your friends have brought over, and then walking back to the studio where you're designing a building whose goal is nothing less than rivaling the Sagrada Familia. That's an alternate vision, one I call eudaimonic prosperity, and it's about living meaningfully well. Its purpose is not merely passive, slack-jawed "consuming" but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing – all the stuff that matters the most. See the difference? Opulence is Donald Trump. Eudaimonia is the Declaration of Independence.

Yesterday, pundits and talking heads believed this crisis was just a garden-variety, workaday crash. Today, people like Tyler Cowen and I have called it a Great Stagnation. But here's what I believe it might just be called tomorrow, when the history books have been written, and the debates concluded: a Eudaimonic Revolution. A sweeping, historic transformation in what we imagine a good life to be, and how, why, where, and when we pursue it.


Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard. Entropy: A New Worldview. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p. 187.
Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. New York: Harper Collins, 1987. pp. 125, 327-328.
Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 1-2. Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. p. 43, 45-46.
"Is a Well-Lived Life Worth Anything?" Umair Haque. HBR [Harvard Business Review] Blog Network. May 12, 2011.

Getting the real work done: Guilt, not shame

In her New York Times bestseller, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains that our feeling of guilt for our shortcomings can motivate us to improve our behavior, but that this is most likely to happen when we are free of shame – the belief that we are not worthy or capable of goodness.

...the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences [sic] between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” ... When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its effect is often positive while shame often is destructive. When we see people apologize, make amends, or replace negative behaviors with more positive ones, guilt is often the motivator, not shame. In fact, in my research, I found that shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better.

June Tangney has said the same thing. Christie Thompson wrote for the Marshall Project:

Psychologist June Tangney of George Mason University has studied guilt and shame among inmates, and found that shame isn’t the most useful emotion. (What’s the difference? Guilt means regretting an action. Shame means feeling bad about yourself as a person.)

The theologian Tom Beaudoin provides an anecdotal example of how guilt is a better motivator than shame:

At several conferences, I delivered sober jeremiads about the economic passivity of my generation and our implication in the exploitation of poor workers overseas. The nadir of my thundering happened after I had just spoken to several thousand Christians at an evangelical conference in Hawaii. On my way out of the arena afterward, a woman rushed up to me and grasped my hand and arm, gushing ‘Thank you! Thank you for that spiritual spanking you gave me!”

In that moment, I realized that being shamed into guilt was one way for Christians to avoid taking responsibility. There can actually be a spiritual frisson in scolding and being scolded, being reduced to a feeling of utter dependence on God – but on a God present most intensively in self-flagellation. Although I had many laughs about it later, I never wanted to give another talk that someone would experience as a ‘spiritual spanking.’

Moralizing was a way of redirecting my own guilt over my inability to change my economic practices. It was also a way of conveying my resentment that the costs of my discipleship – my sacrifices for my faith – were not being recognized by others. My moralizing was an expression of my envy that other people were not as troubled by their habits of consumption as I was becoming. The spanker is often also the spankee.

Some people may crave a gentle shaming, finding it spiritually titillating, but "being shamed into guilt" is not a path into a reforming guilt that enables them to change their behaviors. They don't need shaming judgments about whether they are bad people; they need tools for change. And, as Beaudoin puts it by saying "the spanker is often also the spankee," shaming judgments placed upon other people are often either projections of our judgments of ourselves or else anxious complaints that other people are not like ourselves. There is plenty of shame to go around. But it does not get the real work done.


Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.
"Public shamings: Why judges sometimes opt for sandwich boards, chicken suits, and other embarrassing punishments." Christie Thompson. The Marshall Project. March 31, 2015.
Tom Beaudoin. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 2003. p. 41.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The pathological characters in 'The Last Castrato' novels by Hill and Sanchez (with spoilers)

John Spencer Hill, in 1995, wrote a novel The Last Castrato with a pathological eunuch character. Eleven years later, J. Wolf Sanchez published a novel by the same title with an identical premise. In this article, I compare the two novels: first Hill's, then Sanchez's.

Here there be spoilers.

John Spencer Hill's novel

In the novel The Last Castrato by John Spencer Hill, a crazed eunuch is on the loose in twentieth-century Florence. The stage was set three decades earlier when five self-appointed "Camerati dell’arte" tried to bring back Renaissance music per the original Camerata:

They found a boy, Francesco Pistocchi, about ten years old who "sang like an angel," and they paid his parents "a few hundred lire" to allow them to take the boy to Florence. "They were simple folk and I suppose they thought Marchesi was a singing coach or something of the sort," one of the perpetrators recalled. They performed the castration at midnight in the candelit chapel of Santa Maria Novella. Intending to do things the way they were done in the Renaissance, they gave the boy “a posset spiked with laudanum,” stripped him, and put him in a bathtub. “‘The idea was to have the scrotum fully distended so that we could find the right tubes. Anyway, after half an hour we took him out and Cafferelli muttered a few words in Latin over him, then we stretched him out on the altar and snipped his vas deferens.’ He added, as if to justify the act: ‘It was quite painless and we employed sterile procedures. The lad was never in any danger.’” (p. 176) Years later, the victim recalled how the cardinal crossed his forehead with bathwater and said, “This is a new beginning. From this day I christen you Farinelli, the last and best of the castrati — in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost." (pp. 245-246)

When police heard the story decades later, they noted that the castration itself was "a felony under Italian law," and that the kidnapping and unlawful confinement were also illegal. (p. 177) This awareness accounts for why the young castrato was never able to sing. No one wanted to be associated with the castration. “The lad was simply not a marketable commodity,” the perpetrator said. (p. 179) What they had instead was a "monster". One of the Camerati realizes "he’d allowed Marchesi to talk him into creating a monster — a time-bomb fused to blow up in their faces thirty years later." (p. 112)

They had become rich and famous and none of them had given a thought to Pistocchi for years — though Pistocchi, it seemed, had certainly been thinking about them. ... Who waited thirty years to get even? Strozzi couldn’t have restrained himself for more than half a day. The only possible explanation was that something in Pistocchi’s mind had finally snapped. After bottling up the black poison of his hatred for three decades, he must have been crazier than a shithouse rat and then one day boom! all the fuses in his brain had blown at once. (p. 112)
* * *
Pistocchi’s actions, of course, could hardly be condoned; but it was easy (almost too easy) to sympathize with the desire for revenge that drove him. The men who had castrated and then abandoned him had done so for gain and with an eye only to their own profit. He had been an object to them — a thing — never a human being. They had mutilated and cheated him out of manhood, had inspired his trust and then betrayed it — all without a qualm or a quiver of conscience. Their interest in him, as Strozzi had made plain that day in Arbati’s office, was as a marketable commodity. ... He would be caught and held to account for them [his crimes]. But the guilt for his deeds would have to be shared, before the bar of eternal justice, by the five Camerati who three decades earlier had mutilated him into the avenging angel of their own destruction. They had made a monster, a nemesis, and it had returned to destroy them. (p. 211)

The monstrous split personality

Because of the trauma of his castration and his anger at his abusers, the boy Pistocchi grows to have a split personality. One is Farinelli, quiet, genteel, reflective:

He had a pleasant face lit by frank, intelligent eyes that seemed to weigh all they met with a slightly bemused detachment and that also seemed to miss nothing. He was a big man, well-proportioned and (she thought) probably very strong, who had perhaps once been an athlete, although it was difficult to judge the physique that lay under the folds of his jacket and loose, open-necked cotton shirt. But what attracted her to him in particular was his voice. It had a wistful, melancholy quality that made her think of a wind sighing in the pine trees. It was a sound she knew all to well from nights lying alone, until finally sleep came, in the loft of the cottage on Lake Michigan where her father escaped to write his books in the summer. In her mind it was a sound indelibly associated with loneliness and isolation. She wondered if Signor Farinelli had endured, like her, a lonely childhood deprived of love and motherly tenderness. (p. 37)
* * *
It was as if he had come to interpret his mutilation as the symbol of a universal truth of the human condition — as if he’d understood and been able to accept that, in a way, we’re all castrati cut off from truth and absolute knowing by the impotence of our relativity. We see parts, never the whole. We know in part, never in whole. And yet, for all our unknowing, we know that our partness is part of a greater wholeness — and we have faith that, one day, we will come face to face with it. (p. 268)

The book's main female character, Cordelia, feels that she can identify with his frustration to some extent: "She had endured the tyranny of a husband who had consumed her and spat her out. She knew about betrayal and disempowerment. In a way, she [Cordelia] understood what he had suffered — his castration, his loss of selfhood. But she had broken free and started again. For him, there could be no new beginning." (p. 246) She also sympathizes with the wife of Signor di Banco, who she perceives as embodying “that sorry paradigm of marital conditioning – the eunuch helpmate, sapless appendage of her mate. Cordelia felt her presence in the company as an embarrassment and an affront – an all-too-acute reminder of what women were content to endure from men, of what she herself had suffered in her five-year union with Charles Passmore.” (p. 39) These two examples show a layered interpretation of what it means to be castrated or to be a "eunuch." It is about being consumed and betrayed so deeply that there is no way out, only "disempowerment," "loss of selfhood," in the way that a woman sometimes becomes an "appendage" to her husband and cannot grow or extricate herself.

But then, on the other hand, Pistocchi has a personality with a single-minded focus on revenge. “Debagged and dumped, that’s what I was,” he tells himself. (p. 263) Before the police identify the serial killer, they nickname him "Lo Squartatore."

"Francesco Pistocchi was an angry man, a man consumed by a burning and implacable hatred for those who had wronged him. He was also a simple man — in many ways, even a childish man. His emotions were blunt and visceral desires: not much more, in fact, than savage instincts. There were no grey tones in the palette of his emotional life. His response to events was confined to the primal imperatives of white and black — love and hate — and love was a feeling he had not experienced for many, many years. What he understood best was hatred — and in particular the deep psychological satisfaction of revenge. The wonderful reality about revenge, as he knew from experience, was that it worked. Unlike most other solutions, it actually did make you feel better." (p. 60)

He cuts the vocal chords of the former members of the Camerati, and for the one who actually held the knife, he plans a special punishment of stuffing his genitals down his throat. When approaching his intended final victim, the one who had actually held the knife to castrate him decades earlier: “His eyes burned like coals in their sockets, and a maniacal grin distorted the curve of his jaw into a twisted, demonic parody of joy.” (p. 205)

The image of a Native American is invoked, drawing up cultural stereotypes of stealth and monstrosity:

With the fluid grace of a cat, he crossed the trembling length of his observatory and swung onto a ladder that was bolted to the wall behind a bank of silent, hanging valances. He made his descent swiftly, his crepe-soled shoes silent on the metal rungs. (p. 145)
* * *
He would make the last two hundred yards on foot, moving stealthily – like an Apache. He liked the idea (learned from American westerns) of the feathered underdog, his knife clenched in his teeth, making a surreptitious attack on the well-guarded fort and then melting without a sound, undetected, into the embalming cover of darkness. Only in the cruel light of morning did the stunned and marveling cavalry-troopers find the scalpless corpse of their colonel in his blood-soaked bed, where he had died without a peep or whisper. A feral smile curled at the corners of Pistocchi’s lips. The image appealed to his quixotic sense of the proper romance of revenge. He liked to have a little fiction woven into the weft of his reality. (p. 202)

The moral for others

The moral of this novel is not ultimately focused on redemption for Pistocchi or about eunuchs in general. It pivots from Pistocchi's tragic unraveling to about what men and women can learn from the eunuch's more well-adjusted personality of Farinelli.

For Cordelia, Farinelli is a kind of poetic inspiration as she moves from feeling like an unappreciated wife to being a free agent in the world.

For Cordelia's new male love interest, the balance between gender polarities is of personal interest. He claims to be working on "a poem called Androgyne, about the paradox of masculine and feminine attributes in human personality. I’ve been wrestling with it for weeks and, to tell the truth, I don’t know any more which of us will end up winning – the heroic poet or the poem that’s fighting tooth-and-nail not to be born.” (p. 194) Cordelia later explains the poem to someone else as being “about the reconciliation of male and female characteristics in human personality. His argument is that we all have both – masculine and feminine traits, that is – and that they’re balanced, though in different proportions, in each individual. Personality is the subtle tension of the two held in a creative equilibrium and working together in unison.” (p. 215)

In this book, however, such redemption is not available to the queer character, who suffered a permanent schizoid break in the personality, committed multiple murders, and eventually slew himself. It is only the heterosexual, normatively gendered characters who have the power to interpret gender as gentle reflections on creativity and freedom and to live out this wisdom.

J. Wolf Sanchez's novel

At the beginning of this story, in Florence in 1877, we are told that the talented multilingual singer Giaochinno Vespucci is in an asylum due to “neurosis and mania,” having killed his fiancée with a dagger. He said his fraternal twin Vincenzo made him do it.


One of the doctors in 1877 comments that "our Signor Vespucci is probably the last of his kind. The world has no need of the castrato anymore.” It is unclear why the doctor is unaware of Alessandro Moreschi, who lived 1858-1922 and is known today by the sobriquet "The Last Castrato," and who goes unmentioned in this story by that title.

A little historical information is given on castration in Italy. In other places, throughout history, slaves were castrated to make them "more docile, less sexual," and thus Italy adapted this practice to serve theatrical needs.

“The church had forbidden women to perform in church, or participate in theatre, or in the public stage for that matter. However, by the late 1500’s, as music began to be more complex and works for all kinds of entertainment were booming, a mad rush to find men who could play women’s roles became apparent. ... In the late 1700’s, one Englishman observed that all the castrati in the churches in Italy were made up of the refuse of opera houses."

The author adds: “Since the deliberate process of mutilation was illegal (despite the Church’s employment of eunuchs in their choirs), all kinds of reasons were used to justify the existence of a particular castrato, such as disease of the testes or accidental injury — being gored by a wild boar was a common reason. It became, sociologically speaking, an inside joke.”


Giaochinno and Vincenzo were born in 1805 as fraternal twins. When they are about ten years old, their parents sell them to a man who promises them better singing opportunities. The Conte Gaspari has them castrated to preserve their voices. The castration scene is shown in the novel. Instead of an opium anaesthetic, the cutter (a barber) pressed the jugular so they would fall into unconsciousness. He claims this strangulation is safer, but the real reason for his choice is that he has no opium. The man who brings the boys to the barber hasn't bothered to soak them in a warm bath, either. The boys are tied up suddenly and roughly. On page 16, it says Giaocchino woke up in the middle of his own castration and saw that his brother had already had his completed. This contradicts page 100 which says that Giaochinno had not yet been forced into unconsciousness at all (he was simply gagged to stop him from yelling) and that he watched the cutting of his brother from the start.

After that, Giaochinno and Vincenzo never speak of their castrations, that is, until 1829 when Giaochinno takes an interest in a woman and Vincenzo begins cruelly taunting him. Vincenzo says that he knows Gio masturbates, but what will happen when his girlfriend notices his mutilation? “They all laugh about the half man. The man without a prick!," Vincenzo says. "They were talking about how small your manhood must be.” He calls Gio's girlfriend a "tramp" and warns him: “She said you were probably a homosexual. Most eunuchs are, you know.”

The novel then reveals that one of the boys takes revenge for their castration. First, their father is killed in his own house with his own knife: “The man was beaten to a pulp, his eyes gouged out, his nipples and genitals sliced off.” It was a knife that Vincenzo had secretly taken with him when he departed his father's house after having been sold. Next, the dying Conte Gaspari is suffocated with a pillow.

It seems that Vincenzo would have been the one to commit these murders. After all, at this point in their lives, Giaochinno is described as a sweet, sensitive soul, and Vincenzo is described as cruel.

The monstrous split personality

But then, there is a third murder. This one is a crime of passion. When he hears Vincenzo taunting him about his fiancée Abriana, Giaochinno stabs her repeatedly. He then threatens to kill Vincenzo, too, but another woman, Serpina, disarms him. Giaochinno then “saw Vincenzo wave goodbye.”

An asylum doctor reveals at the end: “Vincenzo died during the castration process.” Of the surviving twin Giaochinno: “He and his psychic twin who lived within him felt abandoned.” This sounds a bit like Hitchcock's Psycho, but, more importantly, it clearly resembles John Spencer Hill's novel of the same title. The moral of the story is: “I think the real illness here is that when Vincenzo died, a part of his [Giaochinno's] soul died with him....The real illness here was hoping against hopelessness.”


John Spencer Hill. The Last Castrato. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

J. Wolf Sanchez. The Last Castrato. Suchamedia. 2006

Monday, March 9, 2015

The character of Vasilios Eleni in 'Like Fire Through Bone'

The 2013 novel Like Fire Through Bone by E. E. Ottoman is told from the perspective of Vasilios Eleni, a eunuch who serves Panagiotis Xarchakos in a household that includes Panagiotis' wife Eudoxia and her own eunuch servants. The setting seems to be Byzantine, but the level of historical accuracy is unclear. It may be considered a fantasy world.

Vasilios' history

When Vasilios was 14 years old, he was conscripted into an army along with his father and brother on their tiny island home where they fought with swords against the Empire. However, at age 15, he was captured and castrated, was no longer "considered a man," swore he'd rather die, and refused food, "determined to die with honor or whatever his fifteen-year-old self had thought that was, thin and almost skeletal in shackles, still healing from where he'd been made a eunuch." But when Panagiotis bought him for ten solidus and gave him the choice – work to death in the iron mines, or learn to read and write and become his secretary – Vasilios chose the latter. The eldest eunuch in Panagiotis' household was cruel to him. Vasilios decided "that I would become the best eunuch I could be, that people would talk about me with envy and admiration." He had to submit to Panagiotis's sexual desires, and felt that he must "uphold his image as the calm and collected castratos."

Vasilios dresses up nicely in a "red, finely woven, lamb's-wool, ankle-length tunic with a gray woven trim, his best leather belt, and gray slippers." He has "smoke-dark skin, short-cropped dark hair, and dark eyes." On another occasion, walking near the Emperor's palace, Vasilios thinks he looks vulnerable "in his fine clothes and the headscarf that clearly marked him as a eunuch and, therefore, unarmed."


The household eunuchs have an ambiguous amount of autonomy. Eudoxia says: "I always prefer my servants to be able to think and make decisions for themselves when necessary. It is an admirable quality, especially in a eunuch." Panagiotis tells Vasilios that "your condition means you cannot be expected to perform a man's duties, but I trust you above all others, and you have never given me reason to regret that trust." But Vasilios warns a subordinate domestic eunuch who has transgressed that "most other masters would beat you every day for daring to even think beyond what you were ordered to do. We are eunuchs and that makes us more valuable than most servants, but never forget that we are still owned. ... You have disappointed not only the expectation of our master and mistress, but the very duties you were designed to do." Vasilios treats him relatively leniently, lashing him instead of mutilating him, but he regrets that the other household eunuchs are fearful of him after this incident. He reminds everyone: "A jewel [this book's word for a concubine who was castrated in boyhood] who refuses to serve his master in bed gets beaten with a switch, not merely less wine for a week."

When Panagiotis dies, the household eunuchs prepare his body, and Vasilios thinks "suddenly that he no longer belonged to Panagiotis. They were equals in some strange way, because in death Panagiotis no longer held the wealth and power he had in life, the ability to enrich or destroy Vasilios's life with a single word."


A six-year-old girl asks him: "Are you really a eunuch?" and her mother reprimands her: "That's not a polite thing to ask over a meal." When the girl persists, saying, "the others said you weren't really a man because you are a eunuch, but you look like a man to me," Vasilios finally answers, "In some ways, I am still a man, and in some ways, I am not. In many ways, I still think of myself as a man, but often, I and other eunuchs are grouped with women and girls, like at the public baths, for instance. Most of the time, though, I think eunuchs are a little bit of neither and a little bit of both."

All of the eunuchs in the story have a first male name and a second female name. The main character, Vasilios Eleni, meets two noble eunuchs, Ilkay Zoe and Xêgodis Aetia.


"Ilkay Zoe was the most famous eunuch in the Empire, maybe the most famous eunuch who ever lived. A brilliant strategist and most trusted advisor to the previous Emperor, he'd been given his freedom when the late Emperor had been on his deathbed." He is portrayed as beautiful in palace art. Theofilos Yalim is his lover.

When Vasilios meets Ilkay, he has this dilemma:

Vasilios didn't know how to address Ilkay respectfully. Usually eunuchs referred to each other by their male names, but usually eunuchs weren't free or as well-thought-of as Ilkay. Should he use both his male and female names? Every eunuch was stripped of their male birth name and given a new male and female name when they were cut. The double name signified the fact that they were no longer male but not female either. To use both would be to show the greatest amount of respect yet even that seemed somehow not enough. Vasilios tried to remember if there was another even more formal title he should be using. He didn't know if Ilkay had a title anymore.

Xêgodis Aetia, despite being married to a woman, presents as a eunuch because he wears silver earrings. He's tall, gray-haired, wearing a "long ankle-length tunic in gray and dark blue," and "carried himself with the air of someone who was used to being obeyed instantly and without question". He seems to have a high voice that he forces down artificially when he speaks.

Another high-ranking figure who appears only briefly in the book is a "very dark-skinned" eunuch wearing "expensive lamb's wool, with the glint of silver in his ears and around each wrist as well." The eunuch bows to Vasilios. He is the servant of the Lady Adhira Rahimi.

"If you could do anything, what would you do?" - Nereida
"I don't know. I try not to think about what will never be. I am the eunuch of a well-placed household, good at what I do, and that is enough." - Vasilios
"Is it?" - Nereida


Panagiotis offers the sexual services of Vasilios, his property, to a man named Markos. Markos declines to use Vasilios sexually, but says he would like Vasilios to accompany him on an errand. When they are in private, Markos tells Vasilios that he would like to attempt to buy his freedom so that they can have consensual sex.

Vasilios is bewildered by Markos' expression of attraction. Usually, as far as Vasilios believes, men are attracted to eunuchs when they are castrated early in life and with care not to scar them excessively so that they can be "jewels" (concubines). This does not describe Vasilios' life story, and he is not even young anymore. Furthermore: "If Markos wanted a lover equal to himself, wouldn't he want one who still fully functioned as a man?" On his own body, "there was nothing left but a tiny puckered nub of scar tissue and another long, raised scar below it." Markos eventually tells him that he's impressed that Vasilios retains his own will: "You have held your own. Even while kneeling, even while following every rule and order, you are still your own person. And that is amazing."

When he finally has the chance to have a sexual relationship with Markos, Vasilios confides that he does not enjoy performing oral sex on men, and Markos confides that he does not enjoy anally penetrating eunuchs (even though, Vasilios assures him, "that according to the Church it is not immoral to take a eunuch that way.")

Demon hunting

Vasilios has the opportunity to hunt a demon named Gyllou. A woman named Arite says she can't open the door to cast it out, but she says that Vasilios is gifted with "the sight" to find the person who can open the door. Vasilios is reluctant to leave Panagiotis's funeral preparations. "I don't have a choice," he says. Arite says: "Maybe not now, not yet, but there will come a time when you will have a choice, and then you will need to choose between being the obedient eunuch or trusting in God and letting what happens, happen after that."

Vasilios and his posse go on a quest to the monastery of the Archangel Michael, believing that there is a chance that they can send the demon back to Hell, but at the same time fearing that "the punishment for a eunuch who ran was death." The monk says that women aren't allowed inside, but eunuchs are. Vasilios meets Brother Stavros who is half-man, half-snake, and who suggests that Vasilios might like to join the religious order. Vasilios replies: "Thank you, but I don't think I am cut out for such a life." Th author then implies that he is simply not religious: "...thinking of the faith of his childhood, the statues, offerings, and rules about what the Gods would or would not tolerate. He'd been young and known little about faith or belief, and then he'd been taken, cut, and sold. He shook his head." Elsewhere he says he is not superstitious about the color of cats' eyes: "I believe we make our own luck."

In a dream, Vasilios sees Malachi: "This figure was tall, with striking, strong features and wide shoulders. The figure was dressed in dark-blue silk, of a shade Vasilios had never seen before, with a scarf pulled over his head and tucked around his shoulders in the way eunuchs wore them. His skin was the color of fire-darkened copper." The figure shaves his head bald wears gold earrings, and carries a dark red snake. His "eyes were dark, but flecked through with gold."


E. E. Ottoman, Like Fire Through Bone. Tallahassee, Fla.: Dreamspinner Press, 2013.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Unsullied in 'Game of Thrones'

The Unsullied are an army of eunuchs commanded by Daenerys Targaryen, a woman who seeks to claim the Iron Throne.

Each season of "Game of Thrones" has ten episodes, one hour each. The Unsullied do not appear until Season Three. This post covers their activity through the end of Season Four.

Before you read!

I'm thrilled that this post has received thousands of views, and I wanted to let you all know that in October 2018 I've released a book on fictional eunuch villains. Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains is available as a Kindle eBook and in paperback.

Season Three, Episode One: "Valar Dohaeris"

Daenerys Targaryen, who commands three dragons, is in search of an army so that she can attempt to conquer the Iron Throne. In Astapor, she meets Master Kraznys who is selling 8,000 slave soldiers he calls “the Unsullied”.

Speaking through a translator, Kraznys explains to her that only one in four boys survives the required weapons training, and that “to win his shield, an Unsullied must go to the slave marts with a silver mark, find a newborn and kill it before its mother’s eyes. This way, my master says, we make certain there is no weakness left in them.” When Daenerys sees them, they have been standing for a day and a night without food or water. Kraznys' translator tells her: “Their discipline and loyalty are absolute. They fear nothing.” When challenged, “Even the bravest men fear death,” the translator responds that "the Unsullied are not men. Death means nothing to them.” To demonstrate this principle, Kraznys bids one soldier step forward. He takes the man's own dagger, cuts through his leather breastplate, and slices off his right nipple. Daenerys begins to speak to stop him, and Kraznys complains in his native tongue, Valyrian, which he believes Daenerys does not understand: “Does the dumb bitch know we’ve cut off their balls?” “This one is pleased to have served you,” the mutilated Unsullied says, stepping back into the ranks.

Daenerys debates buying them. Her confidant tries to persuade her to do it:

"The Unsullied are a means to an end."
"Once I own them, these men..."
"They’re not men. Not anymore."
"Once I own an army of slaves, what will I be?"
"Do you think these slaves will have better lives serving Kraznys and men like him, or serving you?"

Season Three, Episode Three: "Walk of Punishment"

Daenerys, strong but with a principled approach to the use of force, is finally persuaded to buy the Unsullied by this argument: “There’s a beast in every man, and it stirs when you put a sword in his hand. But the Unsullied are not men. They do not rape. They do not put cities to the sword unless they’re ordered to do so. If you buy them, the only men they’ll kill are those you want dead.”

She feigns trading her largest dragon for the Unsullied. However, as Master Kraznys learns, dragons are not slaves to be bought or sold, and Daenerys does not believe in human slavery, either. She frees the Unsullied, and they serve her willingly.

Season Three, Episode Five: "Kissed by Fire"

In this episode, Daenerys meets Grey Worm, the new leader of the Unsullied.

“You did not choose this life. But you are free men now. And free men make their own choices. Have you selected your own leader from amongst your ranks?" [One soldier stands aside.] Daenerys commands him, "Remove your helmet.”
“This one has the honor.”
“What is your name?”
“Grey Worm.”
Someone explains: “All Unsullied boys are given new names when they are cut. Grey Worm, Red Flea, Black Rat. Names that remind them what they are. Vermin.”
Daenerys declares:
“From this day forward, you will choose your own names. You will tell your fellow soldiers to do the same. Throw away your slave name. Choose the name your parents gave you, or any other. A name that gives you pride.”
“‘Grey Worm’ gives me pride. It is a lucky name. The name this one was born with was cursed. That was the name he had when he was taken as a slave. But Grey Worm is the name this one had the day Daenerys Stormborn set him free.”

Season Three, Episode Eight: "Second Sons"

When Daenerys proposes joining forces with the Second Sons, one of their vulgar captains mocks her: “Show me your cunt. I want to see if it’s worth fighting for.”

Grey Worm, standing there, quickly offers, “My Queen, shall I slice his tongue out for you?”

Daenerys calmly replies: “These men are our guests.”

Season Four, Episode One: "Two Swords"

In this episode, Daario Naharis and Grey Worm – both of whom serve Daenerys – go head to head with a little friendly competition.

Daenerys' army of the Unsullied is standing idle in the sun. Daenerys asks: "Where’s Daario Naharis? Where’s Grey Worm?" She's told they've been "gambling" since midnight. She finds them, sitting on the ground with their arms stretched out, each holding his own sword parallel to the ground. Daario says: "Ser Worm is stronger than he looks. But I can see his arms beginning to shake." He tells her that they are competing for "the honor by riding by your side on the road to Meereen." Daenerys replies: "That honor goes to Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan as neither of them kept me waiting this morning. You two will ride in the rear guard and protect the livestock. The last man holding his sword can find a new queen to fight for."

They immediately drop their swords, and she leaves.

Daario: You like this girl? Must be frustrating.
Grey Worm: You are not a smart man, Daario Naharis.
Daario: I’d rather have no brains and two balls.

Season Four, Episode Three: "Breaker of Chains"

At the end of the episode, outside the city of Meereen, Daenerys is verbally challenged by a drunken, vulgar, belligerent man. Missandei translates his tirade for Daenerys: “He says that we’re an army of men without man parts. He claims you are no woman at all, but a man who hides his cock in his own asshole.” Daenerys responds by sending one of her men to duel with the challenger.

Season Four, Episode Four: "Oathkeeper"

Missandei sits by a roaring fire with Grey Worm and gives him language lessons. She teaches him to say: “My name is Grey Worm. I come from the Summer Isles. I am from an Island called Naath.” He speaks haltingly.

“Do you remember your home?” she asks.
“Unsullied. Always Unsullied. Before Unsullied, nothing.”
“That’s not true.”
“Perhaps one day you will return to the Summer Isles.”
“I don’t want return...Kill the masters,” he says, asserting his desire for revenge against those who had made him a slave.

In the next scene, slaves are debating whether to revolt. Grey Worm walks in and tells them, more fluently, in his native language: “All men must die. But I promise you, a single day of freedom is worth more than lifetime in chains.” Upon request, he then introduces himself. "This one," he says, referring to himself,

"is called Grey Worm. I was taken as a baby by the Masters of Astapor, raised and trained as Unsullied. Now I fight for Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains.”
“You are Unsullied? They taught you how to fight before you could walk. We are not soldiers!”
“We have no training, no weapons.”

Grey Worm removes his rucksack. It’s filled with weapons for the slaves' use. He advises: “There are three slaves in this city for every Master. No one can give you your freedom, brothers. If you want it, you must take it.”

Season Four, Episode Six: "The Laws of Gods and Men"

The Unsullied are mentioned in this episode by Varys – himself a eunuch – who reports to the council that Daenerys has used this "powerful army" to conquer Meereen.

Season Four, Episode Eight: "The Mountain and the Viper"

The Unsullied are bathing on the shore of a lake opposite the women, around a bend, where there is some visual privacy. Grey Worm swims to the center and sees Missandei with the other women. She is not wearing clothes. Missandei sees Grey Worm watching her, and she stands, allowing him to look on her nude body.

Missandei privately tells Daenerys what happened. Daenerys replies that the Dothraki aren’t ashamed of nudity, which is not helpful, since Missandei isn’t Dothrakki.

Daenerys shrugs: "Well, I don’t see why it matters. Grey Worm isn’t interested. None of the Unsullied care what’s under our clothes."

Missandei corrects her: “He was interested.”

The women briefly puzzle over the question of whether the castration of slave boys includes both "the pillar and the stones."

"Haven't you ever wondered?" Daenerys asks Missandei.

"Yes, Your Grace." Missandei replies.

Later, the same day, Grey Worm finds Missandei in the empty throne room. "I have come to apologize," he says. He tells her that the language lessons she gives him are "precious" – a word he has learned not from her, but from Jorah. Missandei tells him that he doesn't have to apologize, and that she wasn't frightened. She asks him if he remembers his birth name or when he was castrated. He says: “I remember nothing. Only Unsullied.” She says, "I'm sorry they did that to you." He replies:

“If the Masters never cut me, I never am Unsullied. I never stand in the Plaza of Pride when Daenerys Stormborn orders us to kill the Masters. I never am chosen to lead the Unsullied. I never meet Missandei from the Island of Naath."

He then repeats his apology and turns to go, but Missandei calls after him: “Grey Worm. I’m glad you saw me.” He replies: "So am I."

Season Four, Episode Ten: "The Children"

Daenerys takes supplicants in her throne room as Grey Worm and Missandei look on. One of the supplicants says that Daenerys’s dragon incinerated his small daughter. In the next scene, Daenerys consults in a private room with Grey Worm and Missandei. Daenerys asks where her dragon is. Grey Worm replies: “Sailors saw him flying over the Black Cliffs three days ago, my Queen. Nothing since then.” She asks for Grey Worm's assistance at the catacombs, where she lures her remaining two dragons, chains them, and seals the entrance.