Before Reason

June 9, 2021 apologia

The state of moral blamelessness

At common law, an infant, a child below the age of seven, was deemed incapable of forming mens rea, criminal intent. Attaining that age brought entry into the Age of Reason.

In the law, words often do not carry their ordinary meaning. We call these terms of art. Reason is one such. It imports not so much rationality as the ability to connect action to effects and to classify those dialectically. That dichotomy is good/right-bad/evil. But moral reasoning is hard enough without observing the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum.

Acts malum in se are intrinsically wrong. Murder, rape, arson. A child out of infancy is expected to know these. Acts malum prohibitum are wrong only because the law says they are, such as graffiti on the walls of a building. Traditionally, not so much today, children older than infants but younger than twelve caught a break—being held strictly accountable only if it appeared that they had an awareness of the rule. Past that age the treatment tracks the ignorance of the law is no defense rule.

Memory and truth

In our naïvites, we are unitarian absolutists of truth. Rashomon teaches that viewpoint and truth are separable. Wisdom teaches that memory and truth are also.

My memories of infancy necessarily bear a tenuous relationship to any version of truth that anyone else invovled would have related. They are compounded of echos of sense impressions, photos, tales told to me and memory remolded by remembering. You cannot remember and leave the memory intact as you found it. So, all my memories, especially the earliest, are true solely by reason of being what I now remember. My memory is my truth, reflects no ill on the living, and I am entitled to it. These memories are even less consequential than my rest and are included here solely for completeness and as a test of the patience of my reader.


Vic de Palma was a commercial photographer in Distrito Federal de México. He met my father, a sales representative for a US photo supply wholesaler, and launched him into the waters of the capital’s society set along with my mother, a pretty blonde. I have his informal portrait of them sitting in the slanted light of the afternoon on a portico under two jars of geraniums, looking over towards some church spire, perhaps. He is the perfect 40s tall, dark and handsome archetype in a Palm Beach suit with wide lapels and a head of thick, black hair just long enough to be slightly raffish. She is in the Anglo tourist version of a China poblana, the simple white blouse and skirt with embroidering. She seems to be slighly touching her side, too early to feel my quickening. Fui hecho en méxico.

Remove now to the Boston Lying-in Hospital, 115 years after its founding. In common with one of four other babies born in Boston, I was delivered there in summer 1947. My Aunt Allie, a girl of 11 at the time, tells me that my looks distressed my father, who looked at me through the glass wall slowly shaking his head, muttering “is he really mine.” My cousin Cherie was born a few weeks earlier, in the late spring. Her mother and mine would peramulate us and neighbors would cast doubt upon the proposition that babies with her blonde hair and creamy skin and my dark hair and swarthy complexion were so closely related as their mothers claimed.

Two or three years later, a return trip left a vague impression of a large, steamy bathroom with women in towels weighing themselves. Given the prudishness of the time, that seems factually unlikely. A Freudian deconstruction would be amusing but probably unenlightening.

Back in St. Louis, I am in a rowboat on a stream or possibly a backwater of the Missouri with my father and another man fishing. I see my mother using an old fashioned washboard, tub and ringer, which did not persist as long into later memory as the clothsline she hung the laundry on to dry. I am scavenging among the ashtrays of a coffee table and drinking the melting ice cubes of the drinks.

Later, I live on a street of houses identical, except ours had a blue roof. There were back stoops, just really a simple landing and two steps, where I would sit with a neighbor girl. I was told we would talk in a language of our own devising but I would not otherwise talk at all until one day when I was four. Supposedly I began with complete sentences, but that seems doubtful except Rand did too.

The sole drama was the night the basement flooded. I peered down the stair at my father wading through knee deep.

Departure for destinations whose names were meaningless to me may or may not have been distressing. We washed up in Houston—whether that was planned or something requiring a layover occurred I do not know. I remember one day at the beach, probably it was Galveston, splashing in the water. Later, I promoted that day as my first experience of body surfacing. This is a prime example of something true only because of the way it was re-remembered.

From Houston we headed west toward California. I must have been told that we were going to another beach, because my sand pail was in the backseat with me and I periodically asked if we were near. I don’t remember experiencing the only documentary evidence of the trip, photographs at Boulder Dam showing a little boy attired in white cap, jacket and shorts near a binocular stand. I recognized him by his mother.

Sometime after reaching California we lived in a house just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar in Orange County. By then I had acquired a face mask that allowed sharp underwater vision and a pair of flippers to allow fast underwater locomotion. One day I decided it would be nice to go to the beach. A request may have been denied or I may have been home alone (which was never remarkable). I packed by equipment in a towel and set out on my own. I remember coming to the Pacific Coast Highway and recalled the admonition that I was never to cross. I looked up and down, saw the Art Deco-ish Balboa Theater and a general lack of traffic. Cognitive dissonance was resolved by recalling a related admonition to always look both ways before crossing the street. The distinction between the highway and other types of streets did not seem apparent. The minor types seemed hardly to need attention at all. The rule could only have been meant to cover the highway, and why introduce a rule that was never intended to be observed? In my scientific training later I would come to recognize this as motivated reasoning but it answered the case well and off I went across and down to the beach for a frolic. The adventure was so audacious and the account I gave of myself returning home was so matter-of-fact I was spared punishment. However, I don’t recall another expedition.

Ages four, five and six have nothing much to distinguish them otherwise, apart from Rand’s birth, which I’ve already related. Mother seemed put out with him because he wasn’t an “easy” baby, in contrast to me, and he had something called colic. There’s a picture of me in shorts and the standard issue boy polo shirt with the Charlie Brown wide strip sitting in the corner of the couch looking shy and placating. That seems to have been a common pose with me, but then there’s another pose on the arm of a couch filled by my known cousin and new cousins not before known. I’m grasping my crossed legs with hands with a wide smile from the success of my greeting.

When later collected for purposes of my DoD DD-98 Personal History Form, there were enough addresses to account for as many as seven different schools for the kindergarden/first grade entry into education. A vague Miss Somebody in kindergarden drove home the concept of potentially important women who were not my mother. Reading seemed like an anticlimax, possibly because Dick & Jane with their annoying dog Spot seemed too perfectly pedestrian to be associated with anything so important as reading. I may have known better to read than I thought.

A dark shadow called polio swirled around as an all-purpose stand-in for bad things that happen to children. Practical advice came down essentially to washing hands after using the toilet. Parents could point to no concrete example of a child known to me to have contracted the disease, so somebody named President Roosevelt was recruited, together with photographs of children imprisoned. The boiler from a small steam locomotive had a hole cut in one end and the child was stuffed into it with just the head showing. This was somehow supposed to keep the kid alive. Didn’t make much sense. A few years later polio shots arrived from Dr. Salk (not Dr. Spock, he was different) and all the fuss went away.

Sometime in that period was a first encounter with TV, a miniscule set magnified by a glass dome at a neighbor’s. Children gazed at it uncertain of the reason for the fuss, since advertising aimed specifically at our demographic was still in early testing and so there were no programs designed specifically to deliver it. Before long, the new blessing of civilization came home in a large cabinet with a slightly larger screen that didn’t require the magnifying glass. The only thing that made an impression was Beanie and Cecil (the seasick sea serpent.) One day Beanie announced that they would not be on next week, but not to worry because they would be back! Not. I never again saw them. I knew all about sugar-coated lies, such as we’ll see and someday. I was not prepared for the bare-faced version, a verifiably false statement. They never came back on any station at any time that I could find them. I was pissed.

Possibly it was through TV that I learned that Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, or Stalin, was a thoroughly bad man. In an early attempt at realpolitik I demanded why we did not simply kill him. I was disappointed to learn that someone else, just as bad, would just take his place. I didn’t carry the argument further, to why not kill the successor, too and then the next, as well and, logical conclusion, the whole lot. I would not have seen any valid objection other than the practical.

Memory comes into greater focus sometime around seven. I am lying on the gentle slope of the front yard of a house in Reseda, perhaps. It’s an established neighborhood with trees and grass old enough to be growing through its own sod. I am lying in the grass looking through the leaves into a blue sky with cartoon clouds. It must be a day of low humidity and temperatures around 70°. There may have been the slightest breeze. My hands are behind my head and I am wondering at the perfection of it all. I am not feeling warm and I am not feeling cool. It’s like there is not a boundary between me and the world. Probably the most spiritual experience of my life.

Then, there’s the petty larceny of tax avoidance. From time to time, I would come into a treasure trove of a pair of dimes. I would take them to W.T. Grant, the five and dime, and pick out two treasures. I would pick one and pay for it, then walk out the store. I would turn around, walk back in again and buy the second for the same price. Why? If I bought them both at once, sales tax of a penny would be due.