It is impossible to separate The Face on Your Plate from the author, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. He has lived a most interesting life. It can be crudely divided into the Freud Period and Animal Period. In his Freudian Period, Masson was awarded a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard University. He became Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto. Here, he trained as a Freudian analyst, graduating as a full member of the International Psycho-Analytical Association. Then, he became Project Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, with access to Freud's papers in London and the Library of Congress. He eventually concluded Freud was mistaken when he (Masson) no longer believed sexual abuse caused human suffering to the extent that he (Freud) thought. The Freudian world thought this was heretical. He was fired from the archives. This all led to a book by Janet Malcolm, a lawsuit brought by Masson and a series of books by Masson critical of Freud, psychoanalysis, psychiatry and therapy. Then, in 1995 his Animal Period began with the publication of the international best-seller When Elephants Weep co-authored with Susan McCarthy. This was followed by seven more books about animals, including Dogs Never Lie About Love and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats. A vegetarian for most of his life; however, since writing about the emotional world of farmed animals in The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, he describes himself as "veganish." (p. 139)
The Freudian Masson and the Animal Masson come together in The Face on Your Plate. As would be expected in a book on this topic there are the obligatory chapters on the environmental impact of intensive animal agriculture (Chapter One: "The Only World We Have"); on animal welfare (Chapter Two: "The Lives They Lead"); and on fish farming (Chapter Three: "The Fishy Business of Aquaculture"). These chapters are researched, documented, written and argued well. Woven throughout are the author's personal experiences (e.g., raising vegetarian children, visiting farms, researching and writing books about animals). The writing style is informed and informal, emotional and empathetic. It never preaches, which it could so easily do, and, it has to be said, books of this type often do.
Of the two remaining chapters, the least interesting one is Chapter Five: "A Day in the Life of a Vegan." As may be expected by the title, Masson shares with us information and tips about, well, a day in the life of a vegan. After 30 plus years of veganism, Masson clearly did not write this chapter for the likes of me! So, I suspect, this chapter will be of much more interest to those who are aspiring and becoming or are already vegan.
The Face on Your Plate is well worth reading; however, what makes it required reading is Chapter Four: "Denial." This is where Masson, the psycho-analyst, and Masson, the vegan, come together in a fascinating exploration of the reasons why we choose to not see the face on the plate let alone willingly look into the eyes that look out at us. Whether it is in, first, the individual and a reluctance to admit the inevitable fate that befriends us all (death) or whether it is, second, societal and when we look back and ask with hindsight, "Why the Holocaust? The Gulag? The Killing Fields? Why Srebrencia? Why Rwanda? Why Darfur?" (p. 150), Masson suggests denial is a relatively recent phenomenon. Enter Masson, the psycho-analyst, or, as I should say, Masson, the critical psycho-analyst.
[quote]The reason that denial played such an important role in Freud's psychological theories is that for Freud, repression was the very cornerstone of psychoanalysis. No repression, no neurosis, no therapy, no profession. It was also, let me be the first to admit, an enormous step forward compared to the psychology Freud inherited in Vienna during his time.[quote] (p.155)
Masson explains denial as a "specific psychic defense against an overwhelming reality" and a "technique for survival, indeed, the defense mechanism of the twenty-first century." [Emphasis in original] (p. 153)
Denial, then, is a "convenient overarching mechanism" which we employ to avoid thinking about something. (p. 160) The denial about animals as food frequently begins with our parents. They reluctantly betray us when, as innocent children, we ask where meat comes from. "Could it be that the disgust [felt about eating meat] is in fact a displacement?" he asks. "In time we overcome this, as we increasingly swallow the prevailing attitudes toward food in our culture; but some may be left with a lingering feeling of guilt." (p. 139) We live in a "willed ignorance" of denial. Knowing what we know but denying it. (p. 147)
But can denial ever be justified? Is it better to live in denial of our inevitable death? Should we worry about tragic chapters in the history of humanity that we have no control over but agonize over in hindsight? What about tragedies happening now? The former is truly beyond our control but, he writes, "we can stop killing animals. What is amazing about all these defense mechanisms is how powerfully they work just below the surface of our awareness." (p. 152)
"We must remove ourselves from whatever blind hides our vision," Masson concludes, "and look out at the horizon to face what we see there. We owe animals no less. We also owe ourselves no less, it turns out." (p. 165) The "face" of this author not only informs the reader but also engages with his personality. Time will tell whether The Face on Your Plate will take its rightful place as the authoritative book of its kind. But there can be surely no better way to describe the author's mission.