By Tallulah Griffith.
Megan Giddings, Amistad Press, 2020
Dir. Jordan Peele, Universal Pictures, 2017
Ishmael Reed, Doubleday, 1972
The coincidence of the coronavirus pandemic and the renewed urgency of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism in recent months has drawn attention to deep-seated racial inequalities at a local and global level. In early June, a Public Health England investigation found that by comparison with white Britons, BAME groups are up to twice as likely to die if they contract Covid-19, a pattern also visible in the US, where the African American share of coronavirus-related deaths frequently exceeds the black share of the population. Pew Research Centre surveys indicate that Black and Hispanic people are hardest hit by the financial fallout of the pandemic, in terms of job and wage losses as well as the likelihood of financial reserves covering medical emergencies. Studies from the same fact tank also show that Black adults are comparatively more hesitant to trust medical authorities or participate in trials—unsurprising, perhaps, given the ongoing subjection of the Black populace to medical experimentation. A racism row recently erupted in France, when Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at Cochin hospital in Paris, suggested that a coronavirus vaccine should first be trialled in Africa, and alluded to a wider tendency to use Africa as a medical testing ground. ‘If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?’ asked Mira, prompting Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, to describe the doctor’s comments as symptomatic of a ‘colonial mentality’. Working to expose this mentality, Megan Giddings’ Lakewood elucidates the ongoing trauma experienced in Black communities exposed to concentrated health risks, as financial, medical, and racial injustice intersects.
‘Let’s say you found out that aliens are real during these studies. But you’ve given your word and signed a binding contract. What do you think could get you to break that promise?’ In her debut novel, Giddings figures the Black populace as vulnerable to the exploitative pleasures of powerful others. After signing her NDA, Lakewood protagonist Lena Johnson is inducted into the eponymous medical trial, a government initiative which puts Black bodies at the disposal of white observers. One of these observers—the tall, blonde poster child for eugenicist superiority, Dr Lisa—thus commences her probing, indicating that the trial may expose the work of alien oppressors.
Conspiracy theories are born of power asymmetries, domestic and foreign. As Joseph Uscinksi and Joseph Parent (among other social scientists) have noted, there exists in the African American community a comparatively high propensity for conspiracy thinking. The disproportionate and disastrous effects of AIDS and crack cocaine in ghettos, for instance, were conceptualised by many not as the fallout of the wealth gap and racial inequality, but as direct government intervention. Lakewood, then, follows in the tradition of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, troping structural forces as straightforward conspiracy plots. As racial discrepancies in public health outcomes loom large in the Covid-19 crisis—prompting Senator Elizabeth Warren to state that ‘because of government-sponsored discrimination and systemic racism, communities of colour are on the frontlines of this pandemic’—Lakewood couldn’t be more timely.
Lena is a scholarship-funded college student from a working-class background whose life trajectory is thrown off course by the death of her grandmother, Miss Toni. In order to care for her ailing mother, Deziree, Lena suspends her studies and finds herself choosing among variably profitable forms of exploitative employment. She can take work with a notoriously corrupt cable company, moonlight as a French maid, or sell burritos dressed as a blue corn chip. In any prospective career it seems that Lena is inevitably vulnerable to corporate evil, the ongoing objectification of women, or the enduringly cannibalistic consumption of Black labour. Ultimately, she enrols in the Lakewood Project, a medical investigation into ‘mind, memory, personality and perception,’ which offers housing, a stipend, and health insurance—the resources most essential to bridging racial inequality.
Much is made of the study’s focus on memory. As Lena trials pills for a dementia study, she discovers blind spots in her recollection of interactions with peers and doctors, later discovering that serious and violent abuses of power have been blotted out. Giddings works within the logic of trauma, but also dramatises cultural amnesia, asking how racial injustice is systematically repressed. Pointing to those public policies which fortify racial disparities and drive the protagonist to desperate measures, Lakewood directly implicates American lawmakers in the violence enacted on Lena’s body. Indeed, though Lakewood focuses upon African American anxieties, the roots of American paranoia are far-reaching. Taking cues from Richard Hofstadter’s ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics,’ conspiracy thinking has long been theorised as insulating an American mainstream against external threats and, more recently, against domestic antagonists. In examining contemporary paranoid thought, Hofstadter says: ‘we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country […] But the modern right wing […] feels dispossessed’. Since the early Republic, American experience has been plagued by an anxiety-inducing fluidity, where the struggle to forge an identity is confounded by changing borders and unknown peoples. As Robert Goldberg notes, conspiracy thinking became ‘an American tradition’, exacerbated by racial and religious difference and based upon core Republican values of liberty and the defence of the nation. The rhetoric of conspiracy, it seems, is deeply rooted in the American consciousness.
The thinking which shores up Lakewood, however, ought not to be understood on the same terms as those which embolden ‘birthers’ and flat-earthers. With the rise of identity politics in the later decades of the 20th century, that deeply ingrained lexicon of conspiracy was deployed by feminist, LGBT, and Black rights groups to lay bare the danger posed by a patriarchal, heteronormative, and white-dominated mainstream. Depicting vast and complex forces in terms of small-scale attacks, Lakewood follows from this precedent, licensed by the work of Reed and Peele. In Mumbo Jumbo, the attempts of white people to suppress jazz music are manifested as the work of an international cabal, and the intersecting efforts to fetishise Black bodies and police Black minds are epitomised by Get Out’s Armitage family.
In Lakewood, the mystery and expendability of the Black body is once again the guiding force of the text. Towards the novel’s close, events in Lakewood begin to culminate in a public exposé of the study, and Giddings intimates that Miss Toni and Deziree may both have enrolled on similar programmes—though the latter has no recollection. Through this repeated history, Lena’s desperate circumstances are necessarily reproduced; the cycle of poverty is inevitably perpetuated by the wealth gap and systemic barriers to adequate healthcare. A medical consultant suggests of Deziree’s unidentifiable illness that ‘there is no such thing as normal’: Lena and her family fall outside the bracket of the average American, that normality which protects the status quo and which is widely imagined to not exist, as per the medical authority’s sinister insistence. As the doctor suggests, ‘if you think too much about how things should be, you forget how they are’. Drawing upon activist discourses, Giddings demands an increased attention to those who have become collateral damage due to normative structures, where conspiracy is the metaphor that emphasises the scale of destruction.
The novel manifests this violent threat posed by the dominant order, which is informed by various state-sponsored government atrocities. The novel’s blurb references Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were invaluable to medical data yet obtained without consent. Giddings is also said to have taken inspiration from J Marion Sims’ gynaecological studies, which comprised perhaps the most infamous example of antebellum medical experimentation on female slaves. The Lakewood Project frequently violates the ethical standards for informed consent: ‘you can’t opt out,’ declares Dr Lisa, as the participants are presented with unidentified grey pills. The obfuscated aims of the trial recall the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that ran from 1932 to 1972, in which impoverished African Americans were incentivised to participate by the promise of free healthcare, unaware that they were test cases for untreated syphilis.
Dealing in medical malpractice and its psychological fallout, Lakewood’s conspiracy thinking glosses the very real threat posed to persecuted minorities. From the outset, Giddings reminds us that racist policies have frequently been justified as national service. When Lena arrives at Lakewood, she is greeted by a white woman with a US flag pinned to her lapel, and informed that ‘our most precious resources in this country are great patriots like you’. As Harriet A Washington, author of Medical Apartheid suggests, the legacy of slavery persisted into the 20th century in the sentiment that those who did not pay for medical care owed their bodies to science. Explaining that ‘you give of yourself to make your country a better place’, the observers render Black Americans’ materials at their disposal in a biopolitical imperative which protects one community at the expense of another.
The rhetoric of conspiracy, on these terms, demands accountability for brutality. Among the far-reaching speculations of the Lakewood Project’s questionnaires, Dr Lisa asks Lena, ‘if a neighborhood has suffered a disaster, […] how many people do you think find a new faith […] in their government? […] How do you think people would react if they found out the government purposefully waited to help?’ In a thinly veiled reference to Hurricane Katrina, Giddings underscores what Gregory Squires and Chester Hartman have clarified in their 2006 study: there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In New Orleans, a history of discriminatory policies had generated housing disparities along racial lines; Kanye’s famous post-Katrina condemnation of the Bush administration—that it ‘doesn’t care about Black people’—is a striking reminder that the failure to mitigate the effects of such disparities produces violence. In other words, informed complacency is as destructive as a conspiracy.
The nature of Lakewood’s experimentation makes plain how everyday racism plays out like a calculated attack. In this text, dominant beauty standards and the aims of scientific advancement seek to police the Black body. Lena is forcibly starved, sustained only on prototype meal-replacement supplements. Her eyes are turned blue in pursuit of a marketable colour-change procedure. It is a striking reminder of how white beauty ideals are instilled in the Black community for commercial gain: racism, like diet culture, serves as one of the arms of capitalism. Lena and many others must adhere to these norms for financial gain and professional advancement. Out of town, however, Lena is admonished by residents of colour, who assert ‘Toni Morrison would be ashamed of you’. Much like the mind-control procedures depicted in Get Out, Giddings evidences how white hegemony often forces Black Americans to betray their community, as prevalent racism stacks the odds against them.
Many would argue that to reduce racism to design overlooks the intricacies of those relations which produce institutional oppression—and rightly so. But how can these structures be dismantled if we don’t properly account for their origins? The detrimental effects of such narratives are exemplified in the case of HIV conspiracy theories, which have prompted distrust of pharmaceutical companies and deepened the suspicion of government. One such line of argument goes as follows: supposing we could know beyond doubt that the government abhors those most vulnerable to HIV and could say with certainty that they seek the annihilation of minority groups, what would we know then that we don’t know already? While these narratives are no doubt reductive, figuring sprawling structures as a more deliberate intervention has important redeeming qualities. By the logic of a conspiracy narrative, we arrive at a pithy and powerful analogy by which to condemn systematic abuses against the African American community which are perpetuated, overlooked, and discredited. Fictions like Lakewood assign moral culpability to the governmental (in)action which culminates in the damage that would have been done by deliberate machination. What’s more, in recognising this line of thought, we learn that just as American identity cohered around paranoid speculation, African American communities can inaugurate and protect a sense of self by way of these cautionary tales.
Lakewood thus situates itself at the intersection between fact and fiction. A fever dream takes hold in visions of battered bodies, clinical spaces, sinister doctors, and solitary confinement in a cabin in the woods. In one such cabin, Lena is presented with video evidence of her own submission to a forgotten beating. As the side effects of Lena’s medication list ‘times when you might struggle to differentiate between what has happened, what is happening, and dreams,’ it becomes increasingly less apparent what Lena ought to believe. This pervasive uncertainty registers a wider tension between popular and official knowledge. Those orchestrating the covert Lakewood Project have concocted a cover story: participants can report home their new job at the Great Lakes Shipping Company. When, each day, Lena and her peers are presented with a script for their purported activities, the reader is confronted with a live rewrite of historical fact, a manifestation of racial injustice erased from those official narratives which talk a good game of inclusivity and progress. Indeed, though these scripts are often individuated, where they take the form of one-size-fits-all, we find ourselves considering the stock roles attributed to African Americans, in fiction and beyond. Lena’s story is preordained, as those in power capitalise on the cycle of poverty, where her efforts for social mobility are undercut by more immediate demands. When, late in the novel, a drug-addled Lena stumbles across the plotlines for each character, which map out their future movements within and outside the facility, she considers that the whole town might not be real. For those routinely written out of history, and whose life story is to some extent determined by their existing conditions, it isn’t always apparent which version of events is the most representative of reality.
As Lena becomes more suspicious of the dealings at the facility, she takes to investigating the real-world historical projects of the US government. Her research leads her to Project Artichoke, the San Quentin prison experiments, and Operation Sea-Spray, from which she learns of LSD mind-control experiments, grotesque surgical interventions, and germ warfare tests. She also finds various platforms dedicated to outing the US government’s ongoing human rights violations. ‘There was something about conspiracy theories that [Lena] had always liked. How a person’s brain could find the smallest threads to reaffirm a creative, false truth about the world’. Lena’s ‘false truth’ calls up the ambiguous potential of paranoid speculation, which is, on the one hand, fake news, and on the other, a distortion which reveals a kernel of truth, where conspiracy thinking holds an explanatory power. Lena, pressed by her unsuspecting friends, suggests she’d like to make a film on government experiments, positing conspiracy fiction as a therapeutic aid in working through real trauma.
Though reductive, conspiracy thinking demands the direct linkage of systematic mistreatment to its violent consequences, a crude shorthand which gives language to suffering and offers a powerful warning signal. As the novel’s final chapters track an exposé of the Lakewood Project, a victim’s testimony confirms that ‘stories like that had been around my whole life’. For years, we are told, rumours had circulated about state-funded experiments conducted on African Americans. The parents who subscribed to these suspicions, then, by preventing their children playing near the hospital, demonstrate the important role of rumour as an alarm system in protecting the community. Giddings gives a surreptitious nod to white inaction here: while a proportion of the white population condemn the rumoured injustice at a local rally, the implied silent majority signifies white dominance upheld by complicity in the uneven distribution of privilege.
‘The body is like outer space,’ Lena suggests: ‘the more you actively think about it, the smaller you feel, the more detached you feel from the business of living’. Conspiracy narratives, be they centred on racist cabals or alien landings, act as a coping mechanism for unequal distributions of power. Figuring her body in cosmic terms, Lena recognises that Western society, founded on colonial and cartographic impulses, reduces her body to a frontier for exploration. These transgressions against her body, in the name of probing curiosity and progress, are lucidly figured as alien invasion. Such conspiracy theories telescope complex networks of relations, producing categories of absolute good and evil which result in a partial but forceful commentary. Writing on rumours of white cannibalistic predation in African American folklore, Patricia Turner writes:
The rumors themselves do not cause the wounds from which African Americans suffer—racism, inequality, and prejudice do. Like a scab that forms over a sore, the rumors are an unattractive but vital mechanism by which the cultural body attempts to protect itself from subsequent infection.
As a kind of contemporary legend, precariously balanced between myth and historical fact, conspiracy theories act as cautionary tales. They assign agency, unite listeners under one narrative, and provide simplified, centralised interpretations of seemingly inexplicable phenomena.
When Deziree conjectures that all bees are extra-terrestrial, and the most sympathetic doctor—known only as ‘Smith’—suggests he would like to write a sitcom about incompetent aliens failing in their invasions, Giddings throws off our bearings. Perhaps, after all, not everything is connected. Perhaps the observers are not straightforwardly invincible antagonists. Those ‘smallest threads’ might not amount to a clear picture, leaving us lost in space. But these accounts assign blame in the face of abstract forces, paraphrasing constructions of power, and emphasising the urgency of redressing imbalance. What we confront is the alienating consequences of systematic racism. In the encounter with exploitative others, Lakewood asks how victims should make their voices heard, and what’s more, believed. Providing an insight into the traumatic fallout of persistent injustice, Lakewood speaks to the metaphoric potency of conspiracy theory, where conspiracy fiction can offer an accurate picture of the reality.
Art by Isabella Lill.