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The NS Interview: Miranda July, writer and film-maker

“It’s more interesting to play the person who makes mistakes”

Your films are experimental, yet you live in Hollywood. How does that work?
If I had moved there when I was younger, it might have been more in my bones, but I grew up in Berkeley, which was kind of countercultural, and lived in Portland, Oregon, through my twenties. Then I moved to LA. I have all of this in me, which makes me so much stronger than the little slice of my life that is trying to get these movies off the ground.

So you're not part of the LA scene?
There's the Eastside where most of my friends and I live, and the Westside where my agent lives. I avoid going to the Westside unless I have to. I just don't go to those parties.

Your new film is called The Future. How have you thought about your own?
In my twenties, I had so many hopes and dreams and I lived in the fantasy of those. Then, in my mid-thirties, the future got more real and more finite. Part of it had to do with getting married. I'm not going to do every single thing in the world; I'm going to do this thing. It's not sad, but it is a shift. You realise what your life actually is and that it is going to end.

You cast yourself as the less sympathetic character in the film. Why?
It's more interesting to play the person who makes mistakes. I also wanted the woman to have the affair. I'm never able to convince anyone how little the character I'm playing is me. To my friends, it's so obvious that the creepy guy is me, too - the kid is me, the cat is me . . .

Does it frustrate you when you're conflated with your characters?
It's hard because it is personal and I'm not trying to dodge that, but it's not autobiographical.

Do you worry about being branded a narcissist?
It comes with this territory for me. I put myself in my own movies; I obviously get something out of things revolving around me, and people looking at me. That seems illegal, shameful. I'm always wrestling with it.

Do you make work for yourself, or an audience?
Oh, I'm making it for an audience. The great challenge is if I can work from my unconscious and allow things to be mysterious but still have the audience "get it". Even my early, weirder, experimental stuff was more normal than other people's weird stuff because I always wanted an audience; I wanted to bring people in.

Could you imagine a life in which you weren't making art?
I never had a plan B. When I was younger, it seemed demented how unable I was to conceive of alternatives. The best I can do is imagine writing a lot if the economy were so bad that people like me couldn't make films any more.

Is there a moral or message to your work?
It's probably there despite myself. I don't want to do that, but I hold myself to grilling codes of right and wrong.

Where does that come from?
The harsh critic in me started young. I feel that one should be of service in the world. I don't just want to entertain, I'm trying to make a space for minor things that are overlooked.

Your character is hooked on YouTube. Do you share that obsession?
Sometimes I think I've never had any vices - I barely even drink. Then this vice was invented in my lifetime that is the perfect one for me - I'm totally weak to it. I have to expend a huge amount of energy struggling against it.

So, how do you stop yourself?
It's called Mac Freedom - I use it every day.

What worries you?
Pretty much everything.

Do you vote?
Yes. For Barack.

Are you disappointed in his presidency?
Not as much as most people. He just needs us to guide him. I feel like he believes in a lot of things I believe in, but he has to take risks, he has to be braver.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
A couple of gaffes on my part. They just don't need to be there in my mind.

Is there a plan?
I'm pretty planned out in the sense that I'm the boss of my life. When you are making movies or doing long-term projects, you have time to think. I know I will be working on a novel for quite a while, and then I have a lot of sub-plans.

Is the book a sacred object to you?
I grew up with books - my parents were publishers. A book! You don't mess with that.

Are we all doomed?
In the sense of the planet, I think so. Not that there aren't things we can do. But, yeah, my sense of my grandchildren's future is not great. It is startling to me that I think that and yet walk around doing almost nothing about it.

Defining Moments

1974 Born in Vermont
1996 LaunchesJoanie 4 Jackie, a video chain-letter with films by women
2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know, her debut feature, wins the Caméra d'Or at Cannes
2005 Publishes her first story as a chapbook
2007 Scribner publishes her first short-story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You
2009 Marries the director Mike Mills
2011 Releases second feature film, The Future, and publishes a memoir, It Chooses You

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban