Too complicated to feel

Tessa Hulls

January 31, 2018

There is a specific beauty to the movements of a mind that has consciously taught itself to reroute around its own weaknesses, that has learned to take unexpected backroads through the landscapes it feels least equipped to understand.

About half a decade ago, Ben Blum and I crossed paths in Seattle, and I recognized in him a very particular sort of kinship. We were both presenting for Washington Ensemble Theater’s Sixpack Series, a wildly irreverent literary reading that gives genre-spanning creatives a theme (in this case, ”too bored for the lord”), a month to prep, and twenty completely open minutes on stage. Ben used his brief time to make a plausible case for how to leverage hierarchical social structures and a shared fear of mortality in order to found a cult on a Coachella cruise ship — all through the framework of Robert Lifton’s famous criteria for thought reform. And with my twenty minutes, I presented an illustrated retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark that used the dinosaurs’ failure to reach the promised land as a feminist lens on the dangers of unquestioned patriarchy — all built on my childhood experiences at Christian Fundamentalist summer camps.

Aldous Huxley once wrote about the mind as a reducing valve, a filter that helps cut the inputs of our environments down to a manageable bandwidth. As I listened to Ben’s talk, I recognized someone else who possessed a mind that was largely failing in its role as a reducing valve, but who had learned how to work with that fact.

On its surface, Ben Blum’s Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family, and an Inexplicable Crime is a nonfiction study of a naive young man who took part in a bank robbery. But it is ultimately a much more intimate portrait of the nuanced search for vulnerability within a family that has been scarred by the governing power of its own flawed myths.

Ben Blum is a childhood math prodigy turned writer. On August 7, 2006, his nineteen-year-old cousin, Private First Class Alex Blum of the Army Rangers, threw his life away when he served as the getaway driver for a bank robbery in Tacoma. On his arrest, Alex offered a perplexing explanation for his actions: he had thought that the entire heist was simply a Ranger training exercise orchestrated by his superior officer, Specialist Luke Elliott Sommer.

Alex’s crime and his seeming inability to comprehend what he had done broke both his future and his family, and Ranger Games is the chronicle of Ben’s aching need to understand the complexities of what — and how — his cousin had come to believe. “But the deeper I have dug into it over the years,” he writes in his opening pages, “the more it has cracked open everything I used to believe, like a fissure that turns out to go all the way to the heart of the world.”

The only unambiguous part of Ranger Games is the description of its central crime: Four men in body armor and ski masks, wielding AK-47s, step out of a silver Audi and walk through the front door of a Bank of America; two minutes later, they walk out of the bank with a bag full of cash. From there, all pretense of objective truth dissolves.

After his arrest, Alex refuses to believe that he is actually in prison and cannot understand why he is being asked to speak to civilians over an internal military matter. “Where’s the AAR [after action report]?” he repeatedly demands. Just ask my superiors, he tells his lawyers in the tone one might use when trying to explain something to an uncomprehending child: the training exercise must have been cleared at the highest levels. This couldn’t have been a bank robbery because Army Rangers do not rob banks.

As readers, we wince as Alex lumbers painfully toward awareness. Gradually, he comes to understand that the bank robbery was not a training exercise, and that he is facing years in prison for his crime. Even as he realizes that he was used by Specialist Sommer, Alex struggles to find his way to anger. The lights finally go on after he reads Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by British psychologist Kathleen Taylor, which prompts him to write a 23,000-word document, “Breaking Point: Teaching America’s Youth to Kill,” detailing the gruesome methods — pouring tabasco sauce in his own eyes to stay awake in the field after days without sleep, showing loyalty to his superior officer by holding a gun to his own head and pulling the trigger (“to examine the chamber first was an insult, forbidden”) — that turned him into a “model Ranger . . . unable to think or question.”

Alex emails the treatise to his family, and when Ben opens the document from the lab in Seattle where he is working on his PhD dissertation, he finds himself transfixed. “And now I was weaving myself in too,” he writes, “with the thrilling tale of a heroic soldier duped into robbing a bank and the ex-prodigy cousin using science to clear his name.”

I do not think I read Ranger Games the way I was supposed to.

Ben adroitly sets his chessboard with the necessary archetypes — a hero, hapless, wholesomely jingoistic Alex, who “bought himself ready-made off a toy store display rack, a G.I. Joe action figure self,” and a villain, brilliantly manipulative, ever-unpredictable Specialist Sommer — and places his pieces against the surface of a militaristic system that breaks individualism and molds it into a flat, unquestioned loyalty.

This structure begs the enormous question of where to place complicity after a mind has been subjected to a brutal and deliberate reconditioning, and Ben does tackle this immense theme. But everyone knows that when watching a magician, you pay attention to the hand that isn’t doing anything. I read Ranger Games and watched the still hand, and I couldn’t turn away from the story that took form in the negative space.

Ranger Games is a book that could have only been written by a mathematician, each word part of a dense formula tested constantly against the structural truth of the whole. Ben writes in a series of Russian nesting dolls, quietly using the obvious — the story of and the motivations behind Alex’s crime — as a chance to explore his struggles with his own mind, which are also intimately tied to the toxic masculinity resting in the deepest foundations of his own family myths.

The Blums read as a more-outdoorsy pack of Royal Tenenbaums, complete with a faux “Scottish castle in the yard of an eccentric Texas real-estate tycoon” where the author grows up, and Ben is the intellectual outsider awash in a sea of his extended family’s aggressively normal suburban masculinity. The generational threads of Blum manliness constellate around the heroic figure of ancestor Albert Senior, a war veteran who “volunteered for the infantry in World War II in part to escape his Jewish upbringing” and returned with “the bloody papers of a teenage Nazi whose head he’d seen caved in by a grenade . . . and a fist of untellable stories in his head.”

Al Senior set the tone for a family culture of willing absolutism in which “second place was as good as losing,” breeding men who were adapt at wrestling — sometimes literally — their world views into the false simplicity of moral binaries. Ben and Alex served as the Blum clan’s bookends, each exemplary in their respective pursuits almost to the point of self-parody: Ben studied university-level physics and calculus before entering his teens, while Alex read “the infantry handbook in the library between [high school] classes and doing ten-mile runs each morning wearing boots and a backpack full of free weights to get in shape for basic training.”

Ben writes desperation into the corners of their obsessive achievement, a masking quality through which the cousins use single-minded dedication to hide their inability to sit with the messy ambiguities of an emotionally whole life.

What does it mean to have a mind that fails as a reducing valve? There is an absence of expected scale to the way in which you interpret the world, an awareness that your focus does not come to rest in the places where others say it should. There is no clear demarcation between main channels and smaller tributaries, because you hear the flow of all information at equally cacophonous volumes.

So how do you work with a mind that lets too much in? You find ways to sort the deluge; you create categories, formulas, patterns; you shape order by constructing dams, building your own ways to slow some of the constant influx.

Some of the most lyrical stretches in Ranger Games unfurl in the moments where Ben writes about turning away from the complexity of people and finding refuge in the structures of math:

Math was safer. Massive shapes interlocked in the darkness with comforting impersonality . . . Like antennae poking out of a fogbank, surface facts always suggested deeper purposes, buried cities. Diving for their hidden interconnections was as much a form of prayer as anything I’ve heard my religious friends describe. But unlike religious faith, mathematical faith was rewarded with concrete affirmation: after plunging for hours through the gloom, going so deep your breath ran out over and over, forcing you to retreat back to the light gasping and confused, you would suddenly see it—perfect, glorious, gigantically indifferent to the mind that had stumbled on it.

But as Ben dives further into his cousin’s crime, he explores the parallels between their deliberately simplified world views, and finds them equally wanting. “Where Alex saw darting commie guerillas,” he writes, “I saw fractally branching ferns, Fibonacci-spiraling pinecones, self-intersecting manifolds of swallows . . . Human relations were not my specialty: too complicated.”

Ben’s roving quest to understand what was going through Alex’s head covers a wide territory that includes an appearance on Doctor Phil, the recruited help of the famous psychiatrist who pioneered the groundbreaking Stanford prison experiments, visits to a hidden-in-plain-sight island housing sexually violent predators, and something that almost resembles a personal friendship with Specialist Sommer. At one point, trying to bring focus to the inconsistencies in Alex’s story, Ben even draws on his scientific background to create a mathematical model of his cousin’s mind. All told, Ben conducted over two hundred individual interviews — but ultimately found that the only real answers lay within the story of his own family.

Toward the end of the book, Ben ruminates on Al Senior, the archetype of that

. . . hard male humor at sex and death that I had always accepted as the epitome of Blum manhood, but here it looked like weakness instead of strength, a pressure-release valve for men who were radically estranged from their moral and emotional lives. Were family myths little more than coping mechanisms, insulating sheaths for unbearable truths? What did it do to a man to uphold them his whole life? What did it do to a family to believe them?

This is a book about losing faith in the belief that the thing one chooses to venerate — be it math, the military, or family myth — can ever provide an absolute truth. Beneath the narrative of Alex’s crime, Ranger Games is a compassionate initiation rite into a world of emotional complexity, the story of two incomplete savants choosing to turn away from the stunted ideologies that both formed and failed them.

Books in this review:
  • Ranger Games
    by Ben Blum
    Doubleday
    September 12, 2017
    432 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Tessa Hulls is an artist/writer/adventurer who is currently trying to hide in her studio for the next few years in order to finish a nonfiction graphic novel about the life of her Chinese grandmother, Sun Yi. Visit her website.

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