Animal Rhetoric


 I. Thesis

The week before Graham Bryant killed his girlfriend, he turned in a paper to my first-year composition course, Animals and Society, arguing that dogs should have the same rights as human beings. The first paragraph reads:

It is agreed there are basic rights that everybody shares. This is supported by the U.S. Declaration of Independence (Wikipedia). For periods in history, some people like slaves and women were denied basic rights, but now they are guaranteed to every human being. But why are rights limited to Homo Sapiens alone? Some people have argued this is Speciesism and say Great Apes should also be given rights because their genes are 96% identical to us. In this paper, I will show that dogs should also be given basic rights because there are important qualities that we share.

I gave the paper an A-minus. It was better than Graham’s last paper, in which he tried to argue that dogs make the best pets, although I’d warned against meaningless superlatives of this kind. The new paper was an improvement. I wanted to see Graham’s face when I gave it back to him.

But I didn’t get to give it back to him. By the time I’d finished grading it, he was in jail. The name he’d belatedly scrawled across the paper’s top right corner was now propelled from brief mentions in the college sports section to mug shots in the national news. He wore a jumpsuit printed with black-and-white stripes, like a prisoner in a children’s story. His picture always ran beside the same one of his dead girlfriend, Taylor Pray, beaming before an ocean backdrop.

I held onto the paper, not sure what else to do. I wondered if it could be considered evidence. Graham had even titled it like a piece of evidence, calling it simply Paper #2.

TITLE? I’d written above in light-handed pencil.

But the law didn’t come for the paper. I wasn’t surprised. The press might have liked to see it, but I had no plans to share it with them. I could predict phrases from their stories before I read them: Bucolic setting. Privileged upbringing. Asking why. It was bad writing, and my job was to make bad writing go away.

II. Logos

What are the human qualities in dogs? Graham’s paper is rich in factual support:

Eye tracking technology shows both dogs and humans use a left gaze bias when looking at people. The right half of the human face shows emotion more than the left half so humans look more to the left at each other’s faces. Dogs do the same unlike any other animals. Dogs are also very sensitive to the direction we are looking. If you look up, a dog will also look up to see why you are looking up.

The bit about the left-gaze bias actually came from a documentary I showed in class. While Graham should have cited it, this kind of regurgitation is acceptable in ‘‘empty content’’ courses like Composition 1500. My job was to introduce students to controversies, which they could use to patch together arguments. It wasn’t hard for me to settle on the topic of animals and society. I figured animals would provoke argument, and I was right. My classroom often erupted in shouting. I took it as a sign of a job well done.

To follow a gaze, we have to be able to imagine ourselves in the mind of another, understand that something has captured that mind, and want to see what that something is. A lot of animals only do this with members of their own species, but dogs are particularly attuned to the human gaze.

Graham explains:

Dogs were the first animals humans domesticated. They are actually domesticated wolves. But a wolf skull is long and narrow with a flat top, and a canine skull is shorter and rounder. This makes a dog’s skull look more like a human skull. Because dogs and people lived together so long, they started to look like each other both physically and mentally.

I almost applauded when I read this. It took Graham’s paper beyond the hodgepodge five-paragraph essay into the clean realm of syllogism. All humans deserve basic rights. Dogs have evolved into humans. Dogs deserve basic rights.

On the last page, I wrote a small, enthusiastic note: This is exactly what you should be doing. Keep up the good work.

The details of Graham’s crime came in pieces, contradictory. He was charged with first-degree murder, implying he acted in cold blood. His teammates reported he was in an alcoholic blackout—not to defend him—no one was defending him—but because he was. The police said he admitted to breaking down Taylor’s door and beating her; Graham’s lawyer called the death "a tragic accident."

The law school hosted an information session, which I attended. Every few months, I’d think: Maybe I should go to law school. I could get in—they like literature people. But I haven’t met anyone in law school who recommends going to law school, and now they say lawyers can’t find jobs either.

I learned at the session that Virginia law is tough around alcohol. While other states might consider a drunk person temporarily insane, Virginia holds its drunk citizens to the same standards as its sober ones. Therefore, the law professor explained, Graham’s lawyers wouldn’t be able to use his blackout as a defense. To get him off the hook, they’d have to prove Taylor died in some other way, unrelated to Graham breaking down her door and beating her.

Students took notes on their laptops. A buff young man in animalembroidered shorts asked about potential defense strategies. The professor explained that Taylor’s own blood alcohol content would probably be important, as the defense could argue it contributed to her death.

This statement did not cause a stir, like it might in my freshman classroom. The steady sound of typing continued, free from pounds or pauses of emotion.

III. Ethos

I’m writing my doctoral thesis on the impossibility of seeing Gregor Samsa. It’s something that doesn’t get enough attention—our inability to see a literary character. I argue this makes it easier to feel empathy for a figure on the page than for one in real life. Most readers consider the Samsa family’s rejection of their son barbaric, but I theorize most real-life humans would react poorly to a giant insect taking up residence in their home.

The only difference between the Samsa family and the reader is the amount of information we receive. The family is surrounded by smells and sounds and horror. We get just bits and pieces filtered through Kafka, who knows how to pull the heartstrings. Rather than describing every inch of Gregor’s monstrous transformation, Kafka offers select details, notable for their charm:

Gregor’s little legs waving helplessly in all directions.

His hot belly cooled against a picture frame.

His act of pushing a chair to the window, bracing himself against it, and leaning against the pane.

Insects don’t use chairs to look out windows. We do not see Gregor as an insect here. We see him as a human child. Or a dog.

On the first day of Animals and Society, I feared I would never be able to tell my students apart. They were all white and sporty. While the girls had different hairstyles, the boys blended together in a blandly attractive mass. I felt like a biologist learning the identifying marks of another species:

Drew had a slightly fuller face than Hunter.

Will was not as tan as James.

Blake was always raising his hand in the front row.

Graham sat in the back and whispered with a girl named Paige.

The whispering was harmless. Nothing a soft Shhh cast toward the back of the room couldn’t allay. Graham and Paige would fall silent and look at me apologetically. I realized Graham was good-looking in a way that stood out, even in a classroom of good-looking people. He had full lips and a large body that seemed to want to go soft but was kept in check by his sports playing. (I only found out what sport after he killed Taylor. Lacrosse.)

Did I like him more when I realized he was good-looking? I don’t think so. But I was a√ected by his charm, which had probably developed alongside an awareness of his looks. He turned in his assignments but didn’t take the class too seriously, which I appreciated. I wanted to be teaching literature. I preferred students like Graham to students like Blake, with his insipid remarks that I had to nod along with because they counted as participation.

Graham’s parents were about what I would have expected: rich, divorced, silent. The father was once charged with a dui; the mother was surgically thin. There were mentions of a Tudor home in Northern Virginia, Washington prep schools, a summerhouse in Nonquitt. The media rooted out an old police report regarding a domestic dispute on a sailboat. After a fight with his father, Graham had jumped overboard and swam to shore.

Alcohol is ruining my life, Graham had written in an email to Taylor. The media published it, along with several others. I read them all, adding commas where Graham had left them out. You told me you’d get back with me if I stopped getting so drunk, and then you hook up with Podesta, you slut.

I recognized Graham’s grammatical tics, his lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement. It scares me I can’t remember because they keep happening to me. The emails were not A-minus material. They were melodramatic and filled with clich├ęs.

I saw Graham drinking once, during Tuesday Trivia Night at the Virginian. Obviously, he was underage; who knows how he got in. The university would eventually be sued. Maybe the Virginian will be sued, too. But nothing horrible had happened yet, and when I saw Graham at Trivia, he seemed okay. He was drunk but not falling-down drunk. He seemed distracted and somehow dissatisfied, as if he was looking for something that was not in the bar.

I hugged him. I observed as I was doing it that it was unprofessional, but I was able to observe without caring. Graham hugged back, and our hug lasted a little too long. We were as excited to see each other as old friends. No codes of conduct or academic hierarchy, just warm bodies, sheltering at the Virginian.

IV. Pathos

It’s hard to write about animals without angst. Kafka could do it, but he was among the few. I should have considered this before choosing the topic for Animals and Society. I read all manner of emotional appeal that semester—the white supremacists of the Westminster dog show, sex trafficking and the dairy industry, the overmedication of indoor cats.

I didn’t want shock value; I wanted clean, unremarkable sentences. But my composition students were not interested in subtlety. They liked hashtag-worthy slogans, viral memes, and Adderall. It became impossible to walk across Grounds without seeing a shirt or button emblazoned with a pair of praying hands, a play on Taylor’s last name. #Pray.

Graham’s trial began the following year. The media returned, clustered now around the downtown courthouse but with a few satellite vans on Grounds. While cameras were banned at the trial, they captured Graham outside it, shuffling up to the courthouse each day in shackles and a suit too large for his shrunken frame. The journalists surmised about the suit: was it chosen to make Graham appear more boyish and vulnerable?

If so, it worked: he looked more boyish and vulnerable. At least compared to the confident athlete sprawled out in the back of my classroom the year before. He’d lost weight along with everything else. I couldn’t read his face.

The news reports were unsatisfying. They were either reiterations of old information or hardboiled legal analyses. The comments section below each article supplied the missing venom:

I hope this coddled piece of crap dies in prison.

He’s so pretty I’m sure he’ll be very popular there.

He’ll only go to prison if his daddy’s money saves him from the chair.

I got in a flame war with a commenter whom I tried to teach the difference between fewer and less.

On the penultimate day of the trial, the prosecution played a video of Graham’s interview with the police the morning after he killed Taylor. The transcript is a portrait of a person pretending to remember. The police ask Graham about events from the night before, and he shapes his answers around the evidence being laid out before him. He does not yet know Taylor is dead.

And how did you get in her door? the detective wants to know.

Knock knock, Graham says. Open the door, Taylor.

Knock? The detective is looking for a different answer, and Graham picks up on this. You can tell he’s done this before. Anyone who blacks out knows what it’s like, piecing together the story based on the mess.

Actually, the door might have been locked. I might have broken the door.

You kicked a hole in the door.

Yeah, Graham accepts. He could have done that. I wanted to talk to her. She wouldn’t talk to me and she like did all this stuff.

The detective wants to know if alcohol made Graham violent.

I probably wouldn’t have broken the door if I wasn’t drinking, he allows.

"Weren’t drinking," I say to no one.

But it was all to talk to her. She wouldn’t talk to me. We were wrestling a little. Her nose might have been bleeding a little. She told me to go away and I was like I’m just here to talk to you. She started freaking out. I was like Taylor chill out, and she got aggressive.

Behind Graham’s words is the energy of a storyteller. He’s trying to stay out of trouble but is also pleased to have an audience. She wouldn’t listen to me. I couldn’t get her to listen to me. The detectives are listening. They are rapt with interest.

At any point did she lose consciousness?

No. I literally tossed her on the bed and walked out the door and left.

I was pleased to see Graham, unlike most of his generation, demonstrating a correct use of the word literally.

I have to tell you something, the detective says. She’s dead. You killed her.

The transcript denotes a 10-second pause.

She’s dead? How?

I just told you how.

What? The transcript indicates that Graham takes his head in his hands and clenches fists of hair. How is she dead? She’s not dead. I don’t believe you. He bangs his forehead on the table.

Let’s, like, calm down, the detective suggests.

V. Conclusion

Graham’s paper is missing a conclusion. This didn’t affect his grade; I’d rather have no conclusion than an inadequate one. Most of the conclusions I read are afterthought summaries or shoehorned epiphanies. Graham’s paper ends abruptly on a vague paragraph about canine instincts:

All dogs have instincts that have kept the canine species alive for tens of thousands of years. Wild dogs live in packs because this makes it easier to hunt large animals. There is an example of a pack of wild dogs in Africa taking down a male lion (YouTube). Pet dogs consider human families their ‘‘pack.’’ There are certain wild behaviors dogs still do in domestic situations to feel fulfilled. For example, dogs dig holes, mark their territory and bark at intruders.

I’m still not sure where Graham was going with this. Maybe he wanted to make an argument about atavistic instincts, behaviors we persist in even after they’ve lost their evolutionary purpose. Maybe he was going to write about the clash of nature and civilization. Maybe he had no idea where he was going but realized he had achieved the minimum word count and decided to stop there.

Graham was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-six years. No one was satisfied with this verdict. Taylor’s family and the Internet commenters felt it was too lenient. Graham’s sixteen-year-old sister found it unfathomably long. She came out of the courtroom sobbing, leaning on her mother for support, a photographer’s wet dream. The family launched a series of appeals, none of which succeeded.

Graham’s prison address was easy to find online. I wondered if there were others writing him; maybe the Internet commenters now send their rants through the postal service. Prison mail goes through several levels of surveillance, which I assumed filtered out the violent and insane, but who knows. Maybe Graham gets piles of hate mail delivered to his cell every day.

I slipped Graham’s paper inside a manila envelope and included a short note—unattached, since the prison website specifies no staples or paperclips.

Dear Graham,

I wanted to get this back to you. Strong work; you clearly understand how to make an argument. In the future, remember that Wikipedia is not an academic source. I will be happy to look at more of your writing if you’d like to send it.

—Your composition teacher

I included my address in case he wanted to write back. So far, he hasn’t, but I hear prison mail can be slow.

After dropping off the paper in the mailbox, I stopped at the Virginian for a drink. I was planning to have just one but ended up shrinking my memory to the size of a pinhole, letting alcohol turn off the red pen in my brain.

Each time the door opened, there was the smell of rain, but then it closed again, sealing me away from the street. I had work to do and kept telling myself I’d leave after the next drink, but I found a real sense of possibility there. It felt like I was capable of anything.