Sacrificing Women: “I came to see the damage that was done”

I came to see the damage that was done…

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

Some of the most offensive elements of the Brett Kavanaugh dissembling are that his lived experiences beneath his lies are about a much wider and more insidious reality. The partisan sideshow must not be allowed to distract us from that reality—that we are a country still complicit in sacrificing women.

Toxic masculinity and rape culture are inexcusable subsets of a larger toxic privilege that spawned Kavanaugh and legions just like him. And, yes, frat culture in his past and today are microcosms of the misogynistic worlds in which mostly white men circulate while clutching the vast majority of wealth and power in the US.

But the Kavanaugh debacle is a story about toxic privilege and our willingness to sacrifice girls and women at the alter of any one powerful white man.

Toxic masculinity, rape culture, and toxic privilege depend as well on complicit women who have been drawn into a dark fantasy of being embraced and rewarded by these men—as reflected in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

Toxic privilege has also driven a pop culture designed to idealize and sanitize rape culture:

Sixteen Candles isn’t a college sex romp like Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House. It’s a high school love story. It’s been celebrated for 34 years for its sweet, romantic heart. Yet it is entirely willing to feature a lengthy, supposedly hilarious subplot in which a drunk and unconscious girl is passed from one boy to another and then raped.

So Caroline gets drunk at a party and passes out in her boyfriend’s room, where presumably she believes she will be safe….

The next time we see Caroline, she’s unconscious again, and the Geek is having his friends photograph him next to her unresponsive body. “Ted, you’re a legend,” they gush.

The next morning, a newly sober Caroline and Geek conclude that they had sex the night before. The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. “You know, I have this weird feeling I did,” Caroline says.

As this analysis unpacks, Kavanaugh lived through the same era as this film, and many popular films much worse. Alcohol and toxic masculinity in high school and especially college continue to function the same ways, ways that sacrifice women.

In the very real and ugly world, women are victims of crass political and ideological commitments to guns and lies about who exactly women should fear; it isn’t foreigners or strangers, but guns and men they know:

While this study does not focus solely on domestic violence homicide or guns, it provides a stark reminder that domestic violence and guns make a deadly combination. According to reports submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), firearms are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes. Instead, they are all too often used to inflict harm on the very people they were intended to protect.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, in 2016 there were only 327 justifiable homicides committed by private citizens. Of these, only 45 involved women killing men. Of those, only 29 involved firearms, with 22 of the 29 involving handguns. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common scenarios of lethal gun use in America in 2016, the most recent final data available, are suicide (22,938), homicide (14,415), or fatal unintentional injury (495). (When Men Murder Women)

Image may contain: text

And the very worst of these realities are prominent across the Bible Belt:

Image may contain: text

Emily Peck has reported a telling moment in the Kavanaugh saga: “‘Sen. McConnell, do you always turn your back on women like this?’ Khanna asked as the senator faced other questions from activists while he rode the escalator.”

Yes, the answer is yes, but also, McConnell is but one example of a much larger reality, an entire country turning its back, allowing women to be sacrificed.

Advertisements

Consent, Entitlement, and a History of Sexual Violence

Few things are more dangerous than a man

who is capable of dividing himself into several men,
each of them with a unique river of desire

on their tongues.

It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die, Hanif Abdurraqib

In the adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novelA History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s film vividly confronts viewers with at least a couple powerful and related questions: Is human violence necessarily sexual (natural), and is human sexuality necessarily violent?

This dilemma, I think, is also facing us during the Brett Kavanaugh controversy as that narrative expands and unfolds with more and more details about his privileged past in elite prep school and college.

Let me begin with confession.

From about my junior year in public high school in rural upstate South Carolina and through my first two years in junior college, I drank quite a lot—some times legally (beer) and often illegally (liquor).

Bearded in college, in fact, I looked much older than my age so I would stroll arrogantly into liquor stores and buy bottle after bottle without a single occasion of being carded.

This adolescent and young adult stupidity and carelessness, this culture of drinking, was compounded by our drinking and driving. Often.

Much of my self-worth was built on being seen as someone who could drink to excess and not appear drunk. I was the responsible drinker among my friends, the one charged with driving.

None of this is about a life I am proud of living. But I would also suggest that my experiences and behaviors are shared by many young people—approaching what we can fairly call “normal” behavior.

However, here is where I start having some issues with the “boys will be boys” excuses offered for Kavanaugh.

Even after excessive drinking, I have never sexually assaulted or harassed women. And throughout my life, I have never been violent, mostly embracing passivism (including rejecting corporal punishment of children as a parent and grandparent).

In short, I have held the beliefs and behaviors that honor the sanctity of those weaker or more marginalized than I am.

Even while drunk. Even as I have not by any stretch been a perfect human. Even as I will never try to create a narrative of me as a choirboy just trying to live the righteous life.

Because I have sins I am ashamed to admit.

Although I do believe consent is sacred and have never breeched that line through coercive sex, I have been guilty for much of my life of the intrusion of the male gaze and my own direct and indirect participation in the wider culture of objectifying women through so-called “locker room” behavior all too common among most men.

Viewed by those men as harmless and “just joking,” this language and behavior are hard to avoid and socially awkward to confront. I have in later adulthood come to realize this normal behavior is neither harmless nor funny since it all contributes to sexism, misogyny, and even rape culture.

It is at the intersection of rape culture that my life experiences greatly diverge from the world being described surrounding Kavanaugh and his high school and college friends.

That divergence, I think, can be traced to entitlement. I grew up working class and fully aware I was not entitled to anything, even my parents’ love.

The wealth and privilege of Kavanaugh’s world, however, are paths to entitlement—men who believe they are entitled to everything, including women’s bodies and sex.

One of the grossest manifestation of that can be seen in the slut-shaming among Kavanaugh’s football teammates and printed in the yearbook (“Renate Alumnius”). But the grossest example is the frat-party culture that began for Kavanaugh in high school and continued through college.

As Jessica Valenti wrote in 2014: “numerous studies have found that men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape, that women in sororities are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women, and that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in four years away at school.”

Let’s now add some context to Kavanaugh being nominated for the Supreme Court and just who controls that process:

And just who has sat and now sits on the highest court:

All of this is to confront, then, it is normal for frat culture to include rape culture.

But it is not normal adolescent or young adult behavior [1], I must argue, because frat culture/rape culture is an extension of privilege and entitlement, not the consequence of human nature. Kavanaugh’s world and the world that young men and women like him now see being dismantled and re-interpreted:

Just as pathological liars believe everyone is lying, the entitled believe their entitlement—including the coerced and violently taken sex of those not giving consent, not able to consent—is simply the way the world works. I am reminded, for example, of Richard Dreyfuss’s retort to charges against him: “Dreyfuss told the New York magazine blog Vulture he flirted with and even kissed Los Angeles writer Jessica Teich over several years but thought it was a ‘consensual seduction ritual.’”

As a man continually forced to investigate my own humanity against #MeToo, my culpability both indirect and direct, I seek ways to honor consent and human dignity, continually unpacking my past, always reflecting on my present, and reaching for a better me in the future.

Like the dilemma exposed by Cronenberg’s film, Hanif Abdurraqib ends It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All of Those People Were Going to Die with

The only difference between sunsets and funerals

is whether or not a town mistakes the howls
of a crying woman for madness.

Sunsets harken the end to daylight that leads to night and the promise of tomorrow. Funerals rings more final, an ending.

We, the “town,” a community, must make a choice at some point; maybe this reckoning of Kavanaugh and his entitled class will be that transition.

To remain stuck in the mire of misogyny, reducing all women to the hysterical type that renders them less than human and thus the free bounty of the entitled.

Or to recognize the “howls/of a crying woman” as a plea for her dignity that has too often been sacrificed for the entitled, “a man/who is capable of dividing himself into several men”—one of them dressed in a suit and spinning tells of a choirboy past so that we are too distracted to see the monsters he has been, the monsters he will continue to be.


[1] See this thread that explains with citations: “The best studies estimate that as many as 10.8% of young men commit an act of rape before graduating from college.”

The Slowly Approaching Rumble of the “White Noise” of Privilege

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

Meditation XVII, John Donne

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For my first-year writing students, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” serves as a powerful mentor text and an effective entry point into a difficult topic, privilege.

“Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” Gay explains, adding:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.

While her essay demonstrates the effectiveness of grounding an argument in personal narrative—her own Haitian heritage and trips to Haiti that confronted her with that country in contrast to the US—Gay also acknowledges the inherent struggle to address privilege in meaningful ways:

The problem is, we talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. When people wield the word privilege it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word it has become white noise.

From #BlackLIvesMatter to #MeToo, I have begun to wonder if a growing rumble approaches, a rising toll that will someday no longer be only “white noise.”

Many in the US strongly resist discussions of or acknowledging privilege, as Gay notes, and part of that resistance is grounded, I think, in the cultural narrative created and perpetuated by the power elites—mostly white men: Political and economic status in the US has been earned through merit, and not privilege.

That cultural narrative is mostly a lie since the original power grabs were almost all at the expense of others (slavery and denying women equal status with men, for examples) and then those advantages—privilege—have been accumulated over many, many generations. That historical expanse has helped reduce privilege to “white noise,” it seems.

The recently stalled appointment of Brett Kavanaugh represents both the entrenched refusal of privilege and the potential eroding of the merit-cloak shrouding the truly disturbing underbelly of life-long privilege.

Kavanaugh’s interview to defend himself and proclaim both his innocence and determination to continue the appointment process has some telling features:

“I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh insisted. “Listen to the people who’ve known me best my whole life.” Did he commit sexual assault? He “never saw any such thing.” Did he engage in lurid sexual encounters? He “never participated in any such thing.” Rather, he was focused on “trying to be No. 1 in my class” and “captain of the varsity basketball team” while working on “service projects” and “going to church.” Also, he did not have “anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.”

The denial extends beyond claiming not to have committed sexual assault to never hearing of misconduct at his school or by classmates, punctuated with his own choir-boy self-description.

This picture is the merit-veneer narrative common among the privileged who have created and maintained a network of privilege. Kavanaugh’s appointment is a blueprint for circling the wagons among the connected to protect each other regardless of who or why.

Kavanaugh’s assertions stretch credibility, however, not just for those attending elite private school but for anyone who has ever attended any high school in the US. Teens drinking and sexual misbehavior are all too common parts of adolescence, but even more damning are artifacts from Kavanaugh’s own high school experience and published accounts by his peers and friends, notably Mark Judge:

Judge, 54, has chronicled the debauchery of his 1980s high school years as a student at Georgetown Prep, where he and Kavanaugh were self-proclaimed members of the “100 Kegs or Bust” club.

In his 1997 memoir, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” he wrote of high school “masturbation class,” said he “lusted after girls” at Catholic schools and referenced a passed-out “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” who drank too much and once threw up in a car.

This Kavanaugh debacle is a slightly more polished but perfectly aligned part of the larger Trump phenomenon grounded in lies and denying evidence. While Trump plays the cartoonish buffoon, Kavanaugh is sprung from the refined elites who, as this unmasking is exposing, have very ugly lives under the cover of privilege—the ruling vampire class of the US.

As the perverse and contradictory claims reveal about the cavalry forming to defend Kavanaugh—including women—somehow Kavanaugh is both innocent of sexual assault (because he was a virgin and attended church) and the poster boy for “all boys have sexual assault in their pasts” and “we cannot allow boyhood indiscretions to ruin the promising futures of some men.”

And beyond the specific Kavanaugh controversy and the subsequent defenses, even more disturbing is the rise of concerns about all men now being afraid of #MeToo consequences joined by garbled memes about mothers fretting over their sons’ futures (see this Twitter thread dismantling that narrative).

Ultimately, the US is now poised to make an important decision about continuing to ignore the white noise of privilege or hearing the rising rumble that tolls for the abusive and corrupt privileged elites.

The Kavanaugh accusations sit against the merit-veneer narrative orchestrated by Kavanaugh (and echoed by Trump and his ilk) as well as the often-ignored weight of evidence:

“Sexual assault is likely the most under-reported crime in the United States. About two-thirds of female sexual assault victims do not report to the police, and many victims do not tell anyone. Sexual assault is a terrifying and humiliating experience. Women choose not to report for a variety of reasons — fear for their safety, being in shock, fear of not being believed, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, or expecting to be blamed.

“A lack of reporting does not mean an assault or attempted assault did not happen or is exaggerated. Research demonstrates that false claims of sexual assault are very low — between 2 and 7 percent. This tells us that far more women are assaulted and don’t report than women who make false claims.” (Statement of APA President Regarding the Science Behind Why Women May Not Report Sexual Assault)

A people disgusted by the sordid underbelly of privilege must reject the merit-veneer narrative and choose the greater path to not only truth but also equity.

#MeToo is a reckoning about sexual assault and the silencing of women.

Everything about the Kavanaugh narrative rings false, and we are far past time to silence the lies of privilege.

Invisible in Plain Sight: On Refusal

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A few days into my first-year writing seminars, I have begun to guide students toward reading like writers, navigating texts for the what and how of written expression.

As a way to interrogate their misconceptions about the essay (grounded mostly in inauthentic templates), we walk very carefully through the first six paragraphs of James Baldwin’s A Report from Occupied Territory, published 11 July 1966 in The Nation.

The essay exposes students to the historical realities of racial and racist police brutality—which we connect to Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests—as well as Baldwin’s powerful craft as a writer of non-fiction and a more rich and subtle awareness of the essay. This report helps, for example, students re-imagine how effective writer’s create essay openings—not functional single-paragraph introductions with unimaginative thesis sentences.

Each time I explore this essay with first-year students, however, I am reminded of how some of the best elements of the work—Baldwin’s use of “occupied territory” and “a foreign jungle but in the domestic one”—remain mostly invisible to those students.

Baldwin is referencing war, the Vietnam War that was pervasive at the time of the essay, in order to create a critical portrayal of the police as militaristic. Many students are inhibited from recognizing this analogy.

They have a sanitized view of war (contemporary war as drone attacks has been rendered invisible). I grew up in the 1960s watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news.

They are also blinded by their assumptions about authority figures, such as the police.

While not all of my students view the police positively (perspectives among races and social class vary among my students as we explore the NFL protests, for example), they have recently left K-12 education where the norm is that all authority must be respected, where the adults in authority appear mostly uniform in that deference to all authority.

Dominant ideologies, then, have the power to create invisibility in plain sight. Once anything becomes normal, many simply refuse to see what is right their before their eyes.

Consider the dilemma by a woman scholar, Nikki Usher, prompted to cite a scholar she had actively worked to avoid because of his sexism:

And for those men whose academic sexism hasn’t risen to the level of actionable correction, and very likely won’t — while they continue ignoring female scholars and belittling their work on a daily basis — their reputation overall will remain clean. A serial sexist is unlikely to cite the work of female scholars, but if he is a predominant voice in your field or subfield, there is no way for you to avoid having to continue to build his academic reputation through citations, even if you would like to avoid doing so.

In my first-round submission, instead of mentioning this male professor’s work, I found and cited a half-dozen other scholars who made the points I needed for my theoretical scaffolding, although not in the same foundational articles. But of course the journal reviewers went looking in my manuscript for a citation of the serial sexist’s name and work.

This is a bind that we have yet to account for — how the process of building on academic work itself burnishes the reputations of people whose scholarship is good and sometimes even foundational, but whose characters are awful. In the case of a sexist jerk, you are often left without recourse: Cite him, or look like you don’t know what you’re talking about to reviewers and readers.

Sexist men scholars not citing women often works invisibly and makes women scholars invisible, when the field refuses to see that, of course.

Scholars taking the faux pose of objectivity (citing the seminal work of men scholars, and claiming not to be endorsing the scholar as a person or his behavior) create another level of invisibility—both of which work to perpetuate disciplinary status simultaneously along with refusing to hold abusive scholars accountable.

Those who refuse to see white and male privilege are complicit in maintaining both as invisible in plain sight.

One problem with invisibility as refusal, however, can be seen in my students reading Baldwin and Usher struggling to manage her own scholarship and status.

That problem is grounded in how the marginalized are often positioned with the responsibility to bring that which has been rendered invisible into the light while also being poised to suffer the greatest consequences for that unmasking.

The student stepping back from idealized views of the police in order to acknowledge Baldwin’s criticism is taking a risk in a context that is mostly authoritarian.

A woman scholar taking ethical stances against the powerful current of her field is assuming risk in a context that maintains a false veneer of objectivity and high rigor.

To focus on Usher’s dilemma, this is a nuanced aspect of the #MeToo movement that itself has been rendered invisible, micro-aggressions of scholarship dominated and controlled by men. There is a pretense here that scholarship is somehow distinct from the personal, the person.

I imagine for those outside of academia, sexist men scholars systematically ignoring women scholars (not citing) seems a pale thing when compared to Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK.

For women, however, the cumulative and ultimate consequences of all types and degrees of sexism and gender-based aggression are similarly erasing, paradoxically creating women as invisible in plain sight.

I think about Margaret Atwood recalling that when she attended an all-male graduate course at Harvard, the professor sent her for coffee—Atwood the woman as scholar was rendered invisible behind her perceived status as servant to men.

Ultimately, those left invisible in plain sight remain trapped by the system that perpetuates itself, as Usher exposes.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recognizes his invisibility and in the novel’s end has embraced it, reclaimed it, hibernating himself as a sort of resignation.

This too is a paradox, the incredible weight of invisibility, the burden of being erased through refusal.

If we are to experience a revolution of recognition, the leverage of those with privilege is essential, to pry away the cloaking in order to see what has been right their in front of our eyes all along.

“If you read this story out loud”: Carmen Maria Machado’s Stories

A former first-year writing student who has transferred to another university to become a writer shared Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” with me.

I fell in love with the story and the writer almost immediately, reading the story so quickly I had to throttle myself repeatedly—pausing and then looping back to re-read. I recalled the first time I read Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We,” my gateway into her An Untamed State.

Machado’s stories are more than compelling; they are precise, incisive, and disturbing.

Fortunately, Machado has collected eight short stories in Her Body and Other Parties, a volume that has garnered praise and awards but also establishes her gifts for storytelling, blending and blurring genres, and making the lives and terrors of being a woman central to the universes she conjures.

The stories weave together deftly meta-fiction (the volume begins parenthetically, “If you read this story out loud…”), horror, science fiction/fantasy, and experimentation (although this isn’t an exhaustive list) while also remaining true to the art of storytelling. The reader is always compelled by what John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream.”

Melissa Febos’s examination of “Intrusions” steers quickly toward literature, John Cheever’s “The Cure.” Throughout this haunting personal essay, Febos returns again and again to fiction—film and TV specifically as well as literature.

As she navigates her own disturbing experience with a voyeur, Febos confronts the reader with the perverse normalcy of other women’s stories against the backdrop of fictional recreation (Brian DePalm, Alfred Hitchcock, and “[o]ne of the many friends and acquaintances whom I began interviewing a few months ago about being peeped on”):

It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching. If we want it, where is the crime? Better yet, make us seductresses, inverting the men’s role even more extremely: They are our victims! One of the most shared qualities of all predators is their self-conception of victimhood.

And then:

Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction. “A man’s presence,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is dependent on the promise of power he embodies . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” Conversely, “How a woman appears to a man can determine how she is treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.”

Febos eventually confronts her “peeping tom,” and even overcomes her hesitancy to seek out the police (having been at that time a sex worker). But similar to other women she interviews, Febos discovers moving as her best option in a world where men in power view women as complicit, a prop, and where her role as victim creates a repeat performance as object, as the intruded, chillingly examined in Adrienne Rich’s “Rape”:

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

Just as Febos’s story and the stories of other stalked women are terrifying, they provide a counter-narrative to fiction:

A big difference between the two cultural narratives about peeping—that of the harmless romantic lead and that of the violent—is that one is much truer than the other. … Many of those television narratives boast of being pulled from real headlines, which gives the false impression that women are mostly murdered by sociopathic strangers. In reality, more than half of female victims are murdered by their romantic partners. … The documented frequency with which women are murdered by their lovers is why the pop-culture narratives in which the line between danger and romance gets purposefully blurred are most troubling to me.

The real-world violence and fear women live with and against pervasively also contrast the ultimate failure of pop fiction’s romance with peeping and stalking: the use of “women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity,” returning to Cheever:

The Cheever story is also interested in women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity—though in this case featuring conflict rather than collaboration. When the narrator of “The Cure” spots his peeping neighbor with his daughter on a train platform, the apparent purity of the daughter persuades him not to confront the peeper. … We are meant to be impressed by how deeply the protagonist is affected by the neighbor’s violation, and by his impending divorce. Alone in the house he usually shares with his wife, our protagonist’s behavior is weird, but not unsympathetic. Bachelorhood and the intrusion on his privacy seem to have agitated a deep well of aggression whose contents require some receptacle or outlet. He’s not a creep; he is reclaiming the masculine presence that Berger describes as “dependent on the promise of power he embodies,” and passing on the baton of victimhood. The woman’s fear assures him that he is no longer the object, but the subject.

And then back again to the real world:

One of the most common denominators in the stories I heard from women was of other men dismissing the peeping, as has long been done with so many forms of abuse. Freud himself considered the incest reports of his female patients to be fantasies. … We have all fielded this kind of response to one thing or another. We are exaggerating. We are overreacting. We are villainizing hapless men. And besides, it’s flattering.

Febos’s masterful essay ends with “I am still waiting,” chilling the reader the same way I felt by the end of Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.”

Experimental and long for a short story, “Especially Heinous” offers “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” through each episode over twelve seasons, including each original episode title and Machado’s own rendering of that episode’s synopsis.

This story is challenging in many ways, but it also provides a companion to Febos’s “Intrusions” while illuminating how fiction can rise above Febos’s powerful critiques of fiction’s persistent failures about the lives and terrors of women.

“Especially Heinous” builds its own narrative over the course of 272 faux-synopses, simultaneously breathing life into the horrors of inhabiting a woman’s body and dismantling the often trite and lifeless tropes of pop culture:

“DISROBED”: A disoriented, naked, pregnant woman is discovered wandering around Midtown. She is arrested for indecent exposure. …

“REDEMPTION”: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OKCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the “success” (“caught rapist”) or “failure” (“date didn’t work out”) column. She marks it in both. …

“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.

“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.

“PURE”; A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.

Reading “Especially Heinous” and all of Machado’s stories prompt me toward sentiments repeated in Fabos’s essay:

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. …

“What the ever-loving fuck?” she commented.

Machado and Fabos, through fiction and non-fiction, illuminate and confront the gross negligence of a world in the hands of men who refuse to listen, who persist in driving their words and images over and through the terrors of being a woman as if those men are the only things that matter.

When you finish Machado’s collection, return to the opening parenthetical words, “”If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices,” and then say aloud the last directions as directed: “ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.”

Can you hear it?

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

“We’ve Done It, Or We’re Doing It, Or We Could Start Doing It Tomorrow”

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Trump rightwing women

(From upper-left to lower-right) Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (credit), Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter (credit), Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (credit), and Kellyanne Conway (credit).

Some often muse whether life imitates art or if art imitates life.

For Margaret Atwood, the debate is more nuanced and about genre: “The Handmaid’s Tale…is set in the future,” Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia.” “This conned some people into believing it is science fiction, which, to my mind, it is not.”

What may seem like a trivial distinction—something merely academic—is incredibly important to Atwood, and to anyone reading this novel (or more recently, viewing the Hulu series):

But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some point in the past, or that it is not already doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, or we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. Nothing inconceivable takes place, and the projected trends on which my future society is based are already in motion. So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia….

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen to us if we don’t pull up our socks. (pp. 93, 94)

What might these dire warnings entail in 2018 Trumplandia? At least two come to mind: The manipulation of women to control women and the threat of theocracy to a democracy.

“Puritan New England was a theocracy, not a democracy;” Atwood explains, “and the future society proposed in The Handmaid’s Tale has the form of a theocracy, too, on the principle that no society ever strays completely far from its roots” (p. 97).

These words should be echoing in the background each time we hear or read “Make America Great Again” since Atwood warns, “But true dictatorships do not come in in good times. They come in in bad times, when people are ready to give up some of their freedoms to someone—anyone—who can take control and promise them better times” (p. 98).

Two aspects of Atwood’s speculative Republic of Gilead should give us pause in fact: “biblical justification” and:

Woman’s place, in the Republic of Gilead—so named for the mountain where Jacob promised to his father-in-law, Laban, that he would protect his two daughters—woman’s place is strictly in the home….How do you get women back in the home, now that they are running around outside the home, having jobs and generally flinging themselves around? Simple. You just close your eyes and take several giant steps back, into the not-so-very-distant past—the nineteenth century, to be exact—deprive them of the right to vote, own property, or hold jobs, and prohibit public prostitution in the bargain, to keep them from hanging out on the street corners, and presto, there they are, back in the home. (p. 99)

And, as Atwood’s dystopia dramatizes, create a hierarchy of women so that they become consumed with controlling and resisting each other—while failing to see the higher hands of men controlling the entire puppet show.

Dire warning?

Like the legitimate and illegitimate women of Gilead, enter the women of Trumplandia: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway—quoting scripture, invoking the sacred nature of Law, and routinely lying with well-manicured hair and the sort of make up rendered illegal in Atwood’s dystopia.

“At the front of The Handmaid’s Tale there are two dedications,” Atwood notes, detailing:

[T]he American Puritans did not come to North America in search of religious toleration, or not what we mean by it. They wanted the freedom to practice their religion, but they were not particularly keen on anyone else practice his or hers. Among their noteworthy achievements were the banishing of so-called heretics, the hanging of Quakers, and the well-known witchcraft trials. I get to say these bad things about them because they are my ancestors—in a way, The Handmaid’s Tale is my book about my ancestors—and the second dedication, to Mary Webster, is indeed to one of these very same ancestors. (pp. 96, 97)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is Atwood’s poetic recreation of Webster’s monologue throughout her being hanged as a witch, an act that, remarkable, ended with her surviving: “Under the law of double jeopardy,” Atwood adds, “you couldn’t execute a person twice for the same crime, so she lived for another fourteen years” (p. 97).

In the poem, Webster narrates:

I was hanged for living alone,
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a sure-fire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there’s talk of demons
these come in handy.

And then about her hanging:

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,
their own evil turning inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

The men shouting the authority of God attempt to execute Webster—a woman, and poor—while “The bonnets come to stare,/ the dark skirts also.”

Yet Webster implores:

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can’t dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

Does life imitate art, or art, life? And as Atwood suggests, when art is drawn from life, why do we resist the dire warnings?

Biblical justification and the sacred rule of law by a people shouting “Make America Great Again” over the cries of children behind chain-linked fences after being pulled from their parents’ arms.

Dire warnings we either cannot see or will not see: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

See Also

There’s no reason to believe that women like Kirstjen Nielsen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are more empathetic by virtue of being women, Jessie Daniels