Social Issues

the best way out is through

Warning: vivid descriptions of the Pearl method of child abuse and mentions of sexual abuse.

My mother was beaten violently as a child. She didn’t tell me those stories– or others– until I was an adult because her life is viciously, brutally dark. I help maintain a database on child torture and I still have rarely encountered stories more shocking and grotesque than my own mother’s. As we have both come to understand the ways our culture justifies child abuse and have learned about the realities of “spanking,” I’ve heard more about what the beatings she experienced looked and felt like. Usually, she was beaten when her own mother was enraged; she remembers the screaming vividly, as well as her mother chasing her, or beating her when she was naked and wet.

When she had me, and later my sister, my mother knew she wanted our childhoods to look nothing like her own. She never wanted to treat us the way her mother had treated her.

***

When my family was stationed in Iceland, we began attending a Baptist church off-base, in the village of Njardvik. My parents also decided to begin homeschooling us there, and we began to socialize heavily with other homeschooling families. One particular well-regarded family was a sort of social nexus among churchgoers and other homeschoolers. Ringleaders. Looking back, I can see they were pretty much in control of whether or not you had friends at church. When they told my parents that I was too free-spirited, rambunctious, disruptive, and they needed to start spanking me, it came with an implicit threat: beat your children or lose your entire social life on this frozen island.

They started “spanking” us.

A few years later, we were reassigned to Holloman AFB and we became thick as thieves with another homeschooling family who handed my parents a copy of No Greater Joy and To Train Up a Child. Mrs. _____ had listened to my mother’s concerns about not replicating her own nightmarishly abusive childhood and said “here, this is how you do it. This is how you can spank without ever becoming abusive.”

***

My culture accepts spanking as normal. According to one study from the University of Chicago, 76% of American men and 66% of women think spanking is fine. Given this, it’s utterly unsurprising that a strict, conservative family like the one we encountered in Iceland saw… well, all of me, and declared “that child needs a good whoopin’.” But, many people, like my parents, think that spanking can go too far and can cross a line. How do you make sure that your discipline is biblical, appropriate, measured, and loving?

Enter Michael and Debi Pearl, stage left.

They come bearing the perfect message for this audience: yes, you absolutely can hit your child while still considering yourself loving parents. And, best of all, they bring some very simple, easy rules to follow!

  1. Never spank in anger. If necessary, wait until you are calm before spanking.
  2. Never spank in public. Spankings should never be humiliating to the child.
  3. Never spank with your own hand; always use an implement. Your child should never flinch away from your hand.
  4. Never spank anywhere besides the buttocks and the backs of the thighs.
  5. Always explain to the child why you are spanking them.
  6. Always repair the relationship afterward, and tell them you love them.
  7. Always act as if the transgression is totally resolved and forgotten.

I know these rules by heart because I myself read No Greater Joy and To Train Up a Child several times as a teenager, in preparation for becoming a parent someday. I fully believed this argument, and so did everyone I knew. Follow these rules, and you’ll never be abusive.

***

Except the reality is horrific. My parents beat me nearly every single day, multiple times a day, from the time I was seven until I was fifteen. When my mother decided I needed a beating, she would say “Room.” and point in the direction of her bedroom. My stomach would drop to my feet and I would get sick. I would start shaking. My language skills would evaporate, and I would be unable to think in words for long periods afterwards. Once I crossed the threshold into the bedroom, my heart would be pounding so loud I felt our neighbors should hear it.

Then, I would walk to the side of the bed, press my calves and thighs up against the side of it, and bend ninety degrees until my face touched the mattress. To this day I cannot stand the feeling of quilted polyester sateen and the site of burgundy and hunter green together is nauseating. I would place my hands by my face, and then become as utterly motionless as I could make myself. I was required to be utterly still while she beat me for the entire duration of the beating, or she would start over.

On top of being completely still, I had to indicate — in the appropriate ways– that the beating had “succeeded,” that she had accomplished what the Pearls taught about breaking my will. I couldn’t physically resist the spanking, but I could, after a few strikes, begin to tremble. I couldn’t cry too loudly or too soon, but if I waited until just the right moment to whimper …

Once she had beaten me the number of times she felt my infraction necessitated, we would move to sit together on the bed– me, gingerly– while she performed the trauma bonding ritual the Pearls taught was fundamental to their method. This part was always worse, and harder, than enduring the beating. I would be so incredibly angry, so stuffed full of rage and humiliation and hurt, and I had to pretend that none of those feelings existed. I had to appear repentant, sorrowful, and loving. I had to hug the person who had just beaten me, tell them I loved them, and sound like I meant it, or the whole experience would be repeated until I was “broken.”

I got very good at pretending.

***

When I was in college, I and another student, with the approval of our parents, began courting. Eventually, we became engaged and started planning our wedding for after my graduation. On the surface, our relationship looked perfect and I was thrilled. I was finally going to feel like I belonged– I was straight, I was going to be a missionary, the best possible sort of Christian, and it was my fiance who was my ticket to finally feeling like I was a part of my religious community.

Like I’ve mentioned before a few times, he was extremely abusive. And, like I’ve also mentioned before, it wasn’t the incidents that any outside observer would immediately say “there, that’s rape” which have continued to torment me. Those assaults were hard enough to deal with, but what has absolutely devastated me are all the times where I imagine that mighty, invisible, non-existent audience would be confused. What exactly about this is sexual abuse? I can hear them asking as they watch the scene unfold. You are clearly cooperating.

Yes. Yes, I was.

Because I was taught that the people who hurt you, violently hurt you, every day, for years, are doing it because they love you.

Because I knew beyond all shadow of doubt that if you need to endure the unimaginable, you become motionless.

Because I had learned what signs he was looking for, the subtle hints of my surrender, and how to give them at the appropriate moments so the nightmare would just be over.

Because I was taught when I was seven years old that the best way to survive abuse is to pretend.

 

Feminism

a womb by any other name

My partner and I have a perennial discussion about rhetoric, and how to use it. Surprising to exactly no one who knows us personally, my position is that shocking, jarring language can be useful when judiciously applied and his is that it’s extremely difficult — if not impossible– to persuade someone when they’re on the defensive. I rejoin with sometimes you have to jolt someone to consciousness and milquetoast, softening language can bury the truth under too many layers of put-upon civility, and then he comes back with how overt aggression needlessly gets people’s backs up and away we go in circles.

At this point, it’s a friendly conversation and we are getting better at recognizing it when it happens. Say, tonight for example. A friend of mine shared a post by Aayush Maurya about reframing “how we think about the uterus.” AJ saw it open on my desktop (including an image of the uterine reproductive system) and asked about it, and I related how much I enjoyed the post’s metaphor and language. One of the images Aayush uses is the uterus as a “fortress designed to protect the person from the developing cells inside them.” This sparked a discussion about biological reproduction and the terms we use for it.

Over the years, especially when I started trying to get pregnant in 2016, I’ve learned a lot about what reproduction looks like in my PCOS/endometriosis-inflicted body, and about the biological process works in general. Something I’ve noticed is that, as Carol Hanisch liked to say, “the personal is political” and the language we use around uterine reproduction is … fraught. I’m a cis woman, a mother. I’ve given birth. I’m pro-choice. While none of these identities are in conflict with each other, they do seem to come with different “built-in” (societally speaking) sets of language.

I adore divine imagery, metaphor, and language around giving birth, and love the sense of power it can help convey. Any time I look at my toddler asleep in their crib, there’s always the word miracle hanging just out of sight. I did that. My body made them. Holy shit. I am a goddess. When I was preparing for labor and childbirth, I surrounded myself with very positive, uplifting, encouraging messaging about my the capability of my body to go through something so intense and life-changing. I think that made a big difference when I was in the delivery ward at the hospital and well into my fourth hour trying to push  out a 10-lb baby who decided to come down diagonally.

I also have unabashedly used the word “host” to describe a generic, hypothetical pregnant person, and will do so in the future. I think it is incredibly important to be realistic about what pregnancy is biologically, to literally demystify pregnancy. In my case, in the years it took to become pregnant, I experienced several early miscarriages. Because of my political research, especially research into hormonal birth control, I knew that most zygotes fail to implant at all, and even after successful implantation, somewhere between 30-50% of those don’t progress. Based on what we know from IVF research, it seems like many attempts to combine sperm and ovum DNA result in abnormalities incompatible with life, and that’s a fact the uterine reproductive system handles well. There’s a tension between the needs of the host– yes, host– and the embryo and later the fetus. It is, biologically speaking, a combative relationship. Fetal cells will take everything they can, and the uterus is there, essentially, to stop that from becoming dangerous. Hence, the “fortress” imagery above. This was extremely comforting knowledge to me: I had not “failed,” I was not a “bad woman” for not being able to sustain a pregnancy– in fact, just the opposite. My body knew more than I did about whether or not that specific DNA recombination was a healthy one, and did the sensible thing when it wasn’t.

Later, when I did become pregnant, it was … unfun. Long story short, the placenta was freaking enormous, and it emitted a “we’re having twins!” amount of hormones. That was… I wish I could explain to y’all the itching because it was close to one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Months and months of my entire body feeling like it was covered in poison ivy blisters with nothing that could alleviate it, even for a second. Just. Ugh. Dear god. Nope. NOPE.

Thankfully, it is extremely unlikely that will happen a second time. Fingers crossed the same will be true of the six-month migraine. Honestly the worst thing about that was the boredom. All I could do was lay in the dark and listen to audio books and podcasts which I hate.

Anyway, in the midst of all of that, understanding how the developments happening inside of my body are, biologically, somewhat adversarial… it was helpful knowledge to me. It was good to know I couldn’t take frovotriptan for my migraine because that’s a vasodilator which would be an incredibly bad idea when a fetus and placenta are basically a little vampire shouting blooooood give me bloooood. I did not need to take medication that would open the floodgates on what is a precarious balance already.

Maybe I’m a weird sort, but having accurate language to describe this incredibly confusing experience is something I value.

***

The above is all “personal”– it’s my pregnancy and the language that was helpful to me as I experienced it. But, it’s also fundamentally political. Depending on how far this post reaches, people are going to get extremely angry that I’m using gender neutral language, that I’ve dared to use the word “host,” that I speak in practical, realistic, biological terms. That I do not appear to be mourning the miscarriages and have shrugged them off as natural.

I know many feminist women whose primary focus is on how the medical establishment has typically treated pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. I myself was very careful in who I chose as my medical provider, especially after an utterly appalling intake interview I had at one place. I took courses from these “rah rah pregnancy!” types, read their books. Their “pregnancy is not a disease” perspective doesn’t sit easily alongside my personal experience, though. I never glowed, I was rarely, if ever, happy or excited or thrilled about the pregnancy itself. I had no wooey woo feelings about it. It was drudgery, a means to an end.

I know other feminist women who don’t hesitate to use the word “parasite” instead of fetus– and while that takes it one teeny tiny stop too far for me, since it isn’t technically a parasite because it’s not actually a different species … I get it, and I don’t balk at the idea. In fact, I have found it useful on occasion, to break people out of their notion that I am a woman and have given birth and of course that means I understand the miracle of life. And yes, I do get it. It’s indescribable and awe-inspiring that my partner and I somehow together made An Actual Person who is sleeping upstairs. I obviously used the word “baby” and not “fetus” during doctor’s appointments. Also, yup a baby-fetus is a parasite that saps all your energy in the first three months, then all your nutrients in the next few, before finally bursting out of your vagina in a shower of amniotic fluid, meconium, and blood.

People really do not like it when you pop their mental image that of tender, nurturing, cooing, rocking, hair-stroking mother.

Except I’m both. I’m all of the above. Like everything else about the human experience, this is not either-or. A certain brand of pro-choice advocate will deal exclusively in the literal, the biological– they will shock and jolt and jar, and I will cheer them on. But I will never stop thinking of myself as a goddess, and pregnancy as magic. One of the better memories I have from my labor experience is how my hair splayed out on the pillow apparently made me look like Lynda Carter’s incarnation of Diana Prince to the nurses and midwives, and my interior damn straight you know I’m Wonder Woman. To others, however, I will always seem extremely brutal and callous, preferring medical accuracy and scientific distance over rainbows and unicorns. I will not shy away from the complicated realities of pregnancy, and will endlessly push them to take off their rose-colored glasses. I will always be both of these things– medicine and magic.

I was about to write “no one is wrong here,” except y’know the religious fundamentalists who want my country to be a theocracy ruled by a god they created in the 1950s. Cuz they’re always wrong.

Image from Nouvelles démonstrations d’accouchemens by Maygrier
Social Issues

children can’t be their own best friend, actually

Well, it’s happened. I’ve seen something wrong enough, often enough, to want to write a post about it. I don’t think I’ve written a “reaction post” or a “hot take” in perhaps years. At this point, when John Piper or Tim Keller or Wayne Grudem or Douglas Wilson or the Babylon Bee or the Transformed Wife or or  or or says something asinine and ridiculous, I can just ignore it. Years ago, I couldn’t let their awfulness just be out there, uncorrected. The horror.

But, there’s a Facebook post floating around that has shown up in my news feed half a dozen times, from sources I respect, in communities I engage in or consider myself a part of. I understand why: for those of us engaging with it on a surface level and in good faith, with our typical set of assumptions (such as “children are people and we should meet their needs”), it seems innocuous enough, but it’s not. And it’s going to take more than a Facebook comment that I type out on my phone to respond adequately and thoroughly enough to satisfy me.

I want to note before I begin that basically every other homeschooling alumni who has seen this post in my circles has pointed out what are — to us glaring and obvious red flags. We have the lived experience to see through it for what it actually is.

The following has been shared by Parenting Forward, Raising Children Unfundamentalist, Untigering, and other progressive and child-oriented pages and groups. It was written by Sterna Suissa, a parenting coach who describes her framework as “parenting through emotional connection.”

Here’s the text of her original Instagram post:

It’s interesting how society has us worried about our young children needing friends. Parents feel pressure to place their kids in daycare or have constant playdates so that kids are always socializing with kids of the same age. By the time a child is a teen, the worry flips, parents worry that their teenagers only want to be with their friends.

Instead of being so worried about a lack of social interactions for our child, let’s be concerned with our child individualizing themselves and becoming their own best friend. This sets the foundation for healthy socializing.

So many of us don’t lack social skills & social interactions, what we lack is being our own best friend. Loving ourselves as is, knowing ourselves, being okay with being our own beautiful selves.

The Instagram images were accompanied by the following caption:

The first question I get when I share that I homeschool 3 of my kids is

“Well, how do they socialize?”

I then answer, “My hopes are that my children become their own best friend!”

That normally gets the person thinking. [thoughtful emoji]

I’m not too worried about their social life right now. By the time a child is a teenager they love to socialize & have so many opportunities to form friendships. The foundation for healthy socializing takes place when our child forms a relationship with us & with their own beautiful self.

How many of us lacked socializing growing up or did we lack being our own best friend? How many of us are pressured to have our young children form friendships? We feel guilty if our child isn’t socializing, believing that this is a horrible thing.

Just.

Heavy sigh.

I want to be respectful of Sterna, whose broader style and messaging seem to be things I, by and large, appear to agree with. Looking over her other Instagram posts, most seem fine and I wouldn’t quibble with her over small points of disagreement. There’s one other recent post that the framing of it makes me go hmmmm (this one, about children being “in charge of you”), but generally speaking I think she’s alright.

However, this particular post, even though she comments later that she’s trying to articulate a principle from attachment theory (children with strong, healthy attachments to caregivers have the security needed to actualize), in my opinion massively conflicts with her general principles because it is, at its most essential, far right fundamentalist homeschooling propaganda.

This is a problem I and my colleagues encounter often in our work at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. There are a lot of well-meaning homeschooling parents out there who don’t even realize that the talking points they’re parroting come from an ideology they’d probably find abhorrent– an ideology firmly committed to Dominionism, establishing a theocracy in the US, and the utter disregard for children’s rights, welfare, appropriate development, or safety. The group pushing ideas like “socializing isn’t that important, don’t worry about it,” are fighting tooth and nail for a country where they can have complete and total control over children to do literally anything they want— including sex trafficking, child labor violations, and torture. I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating– and most importantly, they’ve generally succeeded in accomplishing all of that.

Oh, but that’s a genetic fallacy, right? Just because the source of this idea is from that group doesn’t make it automatically bad. Broken clocks, etc. What’s so wrong with a child being their “own best friend”?

***

To analyze this post, I think it’s important to highlight how the images being shared are in response to a particular question: “Well, how do your homeschooled children socialize?” and Sterna’s response is “I’m not worried about it.” That, at its core, is why I have a problem with what she’s saying here. Regardless of how people have been interpreting her words in good faith, this post is not fundamentally about communicating the principles of attachment theory or advocating for well-actualized, emotionally healthy children (although I believe Sterna generally does advocate for those things). This post is a justification for dismissing concerns about a homeschooled child’s developing social needs.

Homeschooling parents usually crib from the same set of arguments:

  • homeschooled children socialize with “people of all ages,” which is actually better than principally associating with similarly-aged peers, really.
  • homeschooled children socialize in more organic, varied ways, which of course is better than what’s possible in a “formal schooling environment.”
  • homeschooled children have access to co-ops and churches and kids in the neighborhood, they’re constantly doing activities out and about in their town, it’s just laughable that anyone could be concerned that they might not be getting enough social interaction, tra la la.

so it’s actually somewhat disturbing to me how Sterna’s come up with a new one– one drawn from supposedly more progressive frameworks like attachment theory. You can neglect your child’s social needs as long as, y’know, they’re well-actualized! Don’t worry about it! They can be their own best friend! From the response in the comment section everywhere I’ve seen it, boy howdy are homeschooling parents gloaming onto this one, partially because of its novelty and partially because of how it, on the surface, sounds like it aligns with their more progressive child development principles.

Sterna has done here what parental rights extremists have been doing for decades: she’s conflated “socialization” with “having a social life.” When someone asks “how will a homeschooled child socialize?” they’re not really asking “but how will they make friends?” or “but how do you see other people if you’re at home most of the time?” What most people are trying to ask, I believe, is “how does a homeschooled child learn all the spoken and unspoken rules/practices/expectations of their culture? Seems like that could be somewhat difficult to do in a homeschool setting.” And guess what: they’re right to have the impulse to ask that question, because it is hard, and homeschooling parents do have to be deliberate about overcoming this obstacle.* It doesn’t mean we all have to adhere to all our cultural “rules,” but we should still know what they are. But Sterna does what nearly every single homeschooling parent I’ve ever seen does: she makes a question about culture and systems into a question about individual relationships. And she’s done so in a particularly disturbing way: friends? who needs friends, really, when a healthily attached, well-actualized child is their own best friend!

Another component I want to highlight is something many people seem to forget: she uses the bifurcation of “young child” and “teenager” a lot in her work, but the context of this post can be interpreted to mean “toddler and preschooler” when she says “young child” because of the references to “play dates” and “daycare.” For most children, even if a parent doesn’t use daycare or arrange play dates, they’ll eventually access a traditional school environment. This is not true for homeschooled children. Homeschooling parents can’t outsource getting their kids a social life to school, or school activities when they hit 5, 6 years old. For homeschooled children, if their parents don’t help them meet their social needs, those needs are never met.

There’s nothing wrong with children developing their own strong sense of self, of having strong, healthy attachments to caregivers, of being able to enjoy their own company and tolerate being alone or even brief stints of loneliness. Those are all goals I have for my own child. But there is a distinct difference between helping your child have a healthy internal life and rationalizing and justifying your desire to abandon their social needs and social development. It actually is a “horrible thing” for a child not to learn how to navigate their culture or make intimate connections with their peers. If you’re a homeschooling parent, specifically, you absolutely should “feel guilty” if your child doesn’t have friends, and isn’t learning to find themselves in their own culture. As their parent and sole educator, it is your responsibility to make sure they are safe, fed, healthy, and developing appropriately mentally, socially, physically, and emotionally.

Including by helping them find, make, and maintain friendships.

*I’ve written in more detail about homeschooling and socialization before.

Photography by Marcelo de Oliveira
Social Issues

children have the right to an education

I’ve been the Government Relations Director at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education the past few legislative sessions. While I’ve mentioned my work at CRHE off and on over the years, it’s not something I ever really dig into much– mostly because if you’re not me it’s probably not that interesting a thing to talk about. Mostly, it’s having the same conversations with different people over and over again.

It hit me a few mornings ago how repetitive huge sections of my day job are to me. Recently, I’ve been speaking with a lobbyist who is very concerned about legislation that’s come up in her state, and she asked me a question that– to me– had a very rote answer. “Parents should have the choice how to educate their children, not whether to educate them,” I said. It’s a sentiment I’ve expressed … many times, hence the pithiness, the sound-bite quality to it. Because I’ve said it so often, it feels incredibly obvious. But often when I say this, the reaction reminds me how it’s not obvious to others. Today, I heard testimony from a woman whose parents did not educate her because she’s a girl and how much education do you need to cook and make babies … and then I watched the committee not just dismiss her but label her experience a “non sequitur” and her testimony a “harangue.” “It’s just balderdash,” one senator argued … about a bill that strips out compulsory education for homeschooled students.

***

My book club has been watching The Good Place and using each episode as fertile ground for discussing ethics, religious concepts, epistemology, spirituality, etc. It’s been an amazing conversation over the last year (we meet virtually) and I highly recommend this. Yesterday was (spoilers) the episode were Michael freaks out and Eleanor has to take over as “Architect.” As we discussed it, I talked about how much I related to Michael in my work.

My job is hard, and thankless, and unpaid. Often it feels brutally Sisyphean. Testifying in hearings like the one I was in this morning is worse than screaming into the void, and the powerlessness … well my therapist has correctly identified I have a hard time dealing with feeling helpless. Except I have to try, because the stakes are often if I don’t try children are tortured and murdered without anyone attempting to stop it. It’s not stakes quite on the level of every single soul in the entire universe going to The Bad Place, but honestly, pretty close.

And I have no Eleanor. If I quit … that’s it. No one is taking my place.

I’m in a position where I can afford to do this job unpaid, and I’m incredibly thankful I can fight for homeschooled children to be safe and adequately educated. It’s a privilege and an honor, but it’s also just, frankly, a lot. I don’t know if I can keep doing this, but I also know that if I quit it’s not like I’m going to stop paying attention to news stories like the Wolfthal family in Florida, or stop knowing what I know about how often abusers pull their kids out of school in order to torture them and get away with it (hint: it is often).

***

Today, in therapy, we were discussing my job and my Very Big Feelings about it (there’s this bill that is particularly egregious this year, and its proponents are pulling out every trick in the book and fighting extremely dirty), and she asked me what my obstacles usually are.

“Well, usually it goes like so:

  1. A child is tortured and murdered in agonizing, horrifying ways.
  2. People are shocked and ask “how could this happen?” Answer: lax homeschooling statutes abusers can exploit to hide their victims and literally get away with murder.
  3. Someone decides “we have to do something. Children shouldn’t be tortured and murdered.”
  4. The homeschool lobby comes crawling out of the woodwork in numbers never before seen by most legislators in a “shock and awe” campaign.
  5. It works. Legislators or committees or caucuses panic and they table the bill.
  6. A child is tortured and murdered in agonizing, horrifying ways, somewhere else.
  7. Rinse, repeat.”

But surely someone must be working on this, my therapist insisted. Except … no, they’re not. Most child welfare advocates avoid homeschooling with a ten foot pole. To them (and I get this, to an extent), homeschoolers are only 3-4% of the population. If they’re trying to protect children from abuse, it’s better to actually pass a bill that protects 96% of the population instead of trying to protect 100% and failing. CRHE is the only organization that prioritizes the voices and needs of homeschooled childrenand we have no money and no powerful friends.

Unlike others, we haven’t been members of ALEC (the conglomerate that actually writes pretty much every Republican piece of legislation) for decades. Unlike others, we haven’t spent every day since our inception actively traumatizing every member in our community so badly that we can activate their trigger response and weaponize it any time we need it. We’re not writing reports on Presidential commissions, or hosting conferences where presidential hopefuls have to attend, or getting money from some of the most powerful politicians, schools, law firms, and churches in the country.

We have a bunch of unpaid staff and volunteers who were homeschooled ourselves and have somehow lucked into not having to worry about feeding ourselves and putting a roof over our heads and a budget that can’t even cover one part-time person at minimum wage. And not just that, but there are a lot of homeschool graduates out there who could leverage their power, their social capitol, their position, to help us … but they won’t. Because they know from experience exactly how scary it is to face the brunt of this particular community’s viciousness.

***

This has been Raw Honest Time with Samantha.

Children have the right to an education.

Such a simple, simple truth … and yet right now, it seems impossible to make that truth a reality.

Photography by Got Credit
Social Issues

notes from the bleak midwinter

Hi.

It’s been almost exactly a year since my last post, when I announced my pregnancy. I didn’t know a year ago how hard the intervening twelve months were going to be– which feels like such a trite thing to say nowadays. My last post was in The Before Times, When Times Were Precedented, and golly has there been … EVENTS. Even just the last week has offered up a bevy of issues that I would have ordinarily been jumping on– Ravi Zacharias, Rush Limbaugh, Ray Fisher and Charisma Carpenter. I do, indeed, have Thoughts on this miasmic swirl of misogyny, religion, politics, and geek culture …

but I’m also tired, as I’m sure are all of you. There’s just too much. And recently, it’s been easy to convince myself that I don’t have anything of value to add, that what I could say is already being said by better, smarter, and more famous people with wider audiences that I could never hope to reach.

Apparently this is a symptom of depression says my therapist. It’s February, so that at least tracks.

However, I did write an introduction to my book yesterday– a memoir following my journey from KJV-onlyism to whatever I think about the Bible now, a book I’m still in love with and yet increasingly heretical about. I’m working with legislators and departments around the country on how to better ensure the wellbeing and success of homeschooled children. On top of all that I’m a mom to a six-month-old who is not yet sleeping for any stretch longer than a couple hours. (How does she do it? My partner’s siblings live with us at the moment, so I have live-in baby sitters; my partner also works from home. I am so incredibly blessed and it is amazing.)

I opened up my “draft ideas” doc today, and it is indeed still filled with a ton of things I want to talk about. I want to get back into the swing of writing as a habit. I want to reconnect with an audience, as I realized recently that many of my casual-yet-fulfilling social interactions were with my readers in my comment section. Y’all feel like coworkers, and my comment section a water cooler. I want to stop feeling like my life is in a holding pattern, and even though the pandemic is ongoing and I am staying the fork inside my house, I want to see how my life from Before the Pandemic and Before the Baby works for me now.

***

So. Let me crack my knuckles and see how this feels.

I wanna talk about Rush Limbaugh because oh dang. Some of the emotions I’ve felt: relief– the world is genuinely a better place without him it. Glee– it’s legit hilarious he died of lung cancer. Couldn’t have happened to a more apropos person. There’s echoes of grief here, too– not for him, but for every single person I know who was incredibly damaged by his ubiquitous presence in their childhood. I’m grieving for all the people who have lost their parents to Qanon and other far-right conspiracy theories he sucked them into. I’m grieving for all the queer kids who grew up encountering his cruelty on a daily basis, having it constantly confirmed how much our families would hate us if they only knew who we are.

After all that comes resignation and dread. Rush is dead, but the people who listened to him every day are still alive. Trump is no longer the president, but Congress is full of people who want to continue hollowing out our democracy in his stead. All the people who voted for him are still my neighbors and family members, and the movements he emboldened– the ones I was groomed to be a part of– are not going anywhere. Limbaugh’s legacy is with us, and I’m sure his radio show will still be in syndication for many years.

Maybe it’s the depression talking here but that is bleak.

The Pandemic we’re all still struggling through? I don’t see it ending anytime this year. The militia movements and everyone else who wants to be a part of “The Storm“? Well, March 4 is looming ever closer.

On New Years Eve, I did that meme thing were you start watching The Two Towers so that King Théoden says “and so it begins” exactly at midnight. This year, as I sat through the Battle of Helm’s Deep once again, hearing what can men do against such reckless hate? felt more true to me than it ever has before. Aragorn’s response “ride out with me,” usually so inspiring, only had me feeling intimidated and hopeless. Ride out and do … what exactly?

I guess… what I’m doing. I heard about how Joseph and Jennifer Wofthal tortured their three children and decided I was going to do something about that, so I am. Biden is being exactly what I expected him to be, refusing to rescind two of Trump’s worst executive orders and thousands of immigrants are about to lose everything because of his cowardice. I’m doing what I can about that, too. I’m going to plant some native blueberry bushes in my yard this spring to feed the birds and squirrels. I’m writing a book.

None of that is really about Rush Limbaugh or Trump … and yet it is. It’s the best hope I have to offer: we keep living, keep trying, and one day it’ll be enough.

photo by Hilke Kurzke
Feminism

ambivalence, not anticipation: on pregnancy

I’m pregnant.

I’ve been waiting to announce this until I felt … something. I don’t know the name of the emotion I’m looking for, I just know that I’m not feeling it and I expected to be. Y’all know I and my partner have been trying to get pregnant for several years and I am happy to have finally made it to this point, to be sixteen weeks pregnant and a few weeks into my second trimester. So far, things are going well and it’s been easier than I expected. The event we termed “evening sickness” (because of course anything my body does is going to happen at night, not in the morning) has died down, the symptoms I’m experiencing now are fairly minor, and the test results we’ve gotten back have all been encouraging.

But the story of my pregnancy has mostly been one of either ambivalence or frustration, not hope or wonder or happiness or anticipation or excitement. I thought I’d feel … I dunno, special? magical? and all I’ve really felt is tired both physically and mentally.

For example:

The first Monday after the positive pregnancy test I immediately made an appointment with my primary physician and started calling all the local OB/GYNs and midwives. I went over all my current medications with my doctor (which will be relevant in a moment) and we decided which ones I’d cease taking and which to continue. When the first OB office called me back to schedule an appointment, the receptionist also passed along a message from the doctor: I “must immediately stop taking Cymbalta” (they knew I was taking it after a brief questionnaire).

Of course I balked at this, especially since I’d already weighed the risks and benefits of all my medications with my doctor who’d prescribed them to me and knew my medical history and why I needed them. I told her so, and the receptionist asked if my primary was an OB. Of course not, I replied, but added I felt confident in her care and medical advice. At that point, the reception mumbled underneath her breath “well if you really cared about your baby…” and then proceeded to give me available appointment times.

I had known I was pregnant for less than a week at that point and I was already experiencing this nonsense. I’m on Cymbalta to treat C-PTSD, General Anxiety Disorder, suicidal ideations, depression, and Sensory Processing Disorder… but this doctor, without knowing my medical history or that I was suicidal before I started taking this medication, was ordering me off of it, without even speaking to me? I decided to make the appointment despite my reservations and as upset as I was, hoping the OB herself would be different in person (spoiler: she was not). Also, there aren’t enough OBs in my area to serve the population, so appointments were extremely rare and I was lucky to get in to see anyone.

That appointment was a disaster (I won’t describe all of it, but she was incredibly offended I was considering multiple medical providers and I wanted to ask her questions about her philosophy of care) and it was followed up with a formal letter informing me that my decision to see a midwife instead of an obstetrician was not recommended and “Prenatal OB care is extremely important for the health of your unborn child,” directing me to “schedule an appointment immediately.”

… I’m still considering blasting them on social media for this.

Another example:

Because of a genetic mutation (MTHFR C677T, for the curious), my primary decided to prescribe me Lovenox, an anti-coagulant because this mutation can cause clotting issues and puts me at a 50% chance of miscarriage at that stage (the general population risk is 18%). For me, taking Lovenox meant extremely painful daily injections for two months that left dark purple bruises 2-3 inches across at times. It was extremely good news when I finally was able to see a maternal-fetal physician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies and she let me know I could quit taking Lovenox. Handsome and I cheered “no shot! no shot! no shot!” every night for a week.

A petty example:

Recently I’ve made it to the baby bump stage where none of my pants fit, and finding maternity pants to try on has been … an unreasonably difficult struggle. Target had two pants in my size, neither fit. Kohl’s had one pair, but they were incredibly itchy. I drove almost two hours to visit Macy’s and Penny’s because their websites said they had maternity sections, but the one at Macy’s was completely gone (despite still being on store signage) and Penny’s “maternity section” was a single rack with six shirts on it labeled “clearance.” H&M had a maternity section but all their clothes are made for people shaped like twigs so I nearly had a breakdown in the dressing room after twelve pairs of pants made me feel like a lumpy meatsack. My remaining option was to order a bunch of pants in various sizes online, but I’m going to have to drive the same two hours in order to return all but one or two pairs I decide to keep (if any of them even fit, I am not optimistic).

***

And on top of all of that, I have this niggling worry what I’m feeling isn’t normal, or “right.” When I look down at my growing belly I don’t feel joy or anticipation. Mostly I feel … confused. Even being pregnant for over three months has not been enough to convince me this is real and happening and something worth feeling excited about. If anything I’m just annoyed my feet hurt, I can’t take my migraine medication (hello, headache I’ve had every day for three weeks), and I have to get up three or four times every night to pee.

Usually, planning things is my jam. I am the “research what to buy” queen, and it’s normally a task I revel in. The thought of decorating the nursery, instead of making me giddy and having me pin endless ideas (my typical response to home improvement projects) is filling me with dread. Figuring out what to register for is utterly overwhelming and makes my brain shut off every time I even glance at one of those “registry checklist” articles.

My therapist keeps telling me I can’t legislate my feelings — I can’t decide what emotions are “correct” or “appropriate” to feel and then allow only those feelings and banish all the others. My feelings exist, they’re there, and I have to deal with them as they are instead of insisting they be something different.

I don’t want to feel frustrated, annoyed, confused, or at best ambivalent. I want to feel happy– I want to be reveling in the anticipation. I feel like I should have the second trimester pregnancy “glow” and all I know is people congratulating me makes me feel an emotion I can’t name. Embarrassment? Resentment? I want to disappear? There have even been moments, when I’m particularly exhausted and my back has hurt so bad that day I can’t really move around, where I’ve felt regret and I’m filled with shame. We were actively trying to get pregnant for years and I feel regret? Over a decision I consciously re-made every time I had sex? I hate that in conversations with acquaintances and friends I feel like I’m constantly faking it. Good news: I’m pregnant! Except it doesn’t feel like good news, just … news.

I’m doing everything I’m supposed to. I’m taking my prenatals, I’m trying to eat well and drink enough water. I’m going through all the motions– making appointments with chiropractors, getting routine bloodwork done, putting lotion on my belly. But now the recommendations are all things like “talk to your baby! you and your partner can read books out loud!” and I’m still struggling not to refer to the eventual person growing inside me as “it.”

This isn’t the pregnancy announcement I wanted to write. But it’s an honest one.

Photography by Tatiana Vdb
Feminism

when I was a pro-life hypocrite

This week, a Facebook post written by Jamie Jeffries and submitted to the “Are You Even Pro-Life?” Facebook group went viral after Hayley Farless shared a screenshot of it to Twitter. Jamie has since deleted it, but if you haven’t seen it, here’s the text:

I talked a mom out of abortion in February [2019]. Her baby is 6 months old now and was just removed from her families [sic] custody by DCS (unfortunately it was probably a justified removal)

But this family put ME down as next preferred placement for this baby. Dude me?!?!?

No. No no no no no no no no no!

I do way too much for this work already, a 6month old will break me, destroy my marriage and physical health. I just can’t!!

It makes sense to me why a post like this would go viral and get almost seventy thousand retweets: in the fight for reproductive justice, most of us are aware a lot of supposedly pro-life people are hypocrites in many different ways. Support for war, the death penalty, locking children in cages and refusing them life-saving medical care, sending Salvadoran refugees back to be tortured and slaughtered, etc., all rather fly in the face of the “pro-life” label.

It is unusual, though, for the hypocrisy to be laid bare quite so … emphatically. This woman stopped another woman from getting an abortion, but now a baby would “destroy” her life? A lot of us felt taken aback by the sheer audacity and utter lack of self-awareness.

Jamie wrote a separate update, which she has also since deleted, clarifying what she meant and insisting people were deliberately misinterpreting her and taking what she’d said out of context. Which, to a certain extent, I get. In a moment of vulnerability, she said something raw and unedited for a particular audience who she knew would interpret her words in good faith and assume the best of her character and intentions. I have a lot of compassion for her being in this position– she’s getting threats, Facebook suspended her account … I can imagine being Jamie Jeffries this week is pretty horrible.

I’m also feeling compassion for Jamie because … I used to be her. Only worse.

In the beginning of 2009, my fiance at the time raped and impregnated me. Eleven years ago I did not have access to the language to describe what had happened to me as rape– I had no idea pleading with him to stop, saying no, physically resisting, made him a rapist and me a victim; because, after all, I must have done something to “incite his lust.” I didn’t understand he’d raped me, but that didn’t stop the panic and despair when I was a week late, then two weeks late, then more.

There were a lot of reasons why I could not be pregnant in 2009. It would ruin my reputation. It would ruin my career, most likely. I’d be expelled from Pensacola Christian College and while my parents loved me and would support me, I knew, effectively, my life would be over. Pregnancy was the end and I knew it. I also knew, deep down, I could not have his baby. I could never have articulated why. I could not have explained to you if he found out I was pregnant he might kill me– or worse marry me right away and shut me away forever. I knew he’d blame me for destroying his life. And I knew, instinctively, carrying around his blame would spell disaster for myself and any family we had together.

Eventually, I booked an appointment at the closest clinic. A few days later in an event I have always viewed as nothing short of miraculous, I miscarried. It was the worst period of my life and I bled so much I thought I was dying, but I was almost sick with relief. I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Even after all that, I was proudly and solidly pro-life for another three years.

How was that possible? How could I have decided to have an abortion for myself, and still be pro-life? How could I stomach the brazen hypocrisy? How did my brain not explode from cognitive dissonance?

Because, you see, my circumstances were special. My circumstances were different. My circumstances justified abortion and made it the only possible choice.

That’s the argument of Jamie’s second Facebook post– she gave paragraphs upon paragraphs of excellent reasons why having a baby would disrupt her life and make it completely unmanageable. After reading her reasons, I was very sympathetic to why she couldn’t take in “Baby Z.” Adopting or even fostering a six-month-old would have been too much for her and her life.

What Jamie doesn’t understand and what I didn’t understand a decade ago was nothing makes us special. Nothing makes our reasons “good enough” and other people’s reasons “not good enough.” Jamie had good reasons for not wanting a baby right now. I had very good reasons for not wanting to be pregnant in 2009.

… but so does every other person who wants an abortion.

Photo by Sarebear
Social Issues

the homeschooling reading gap

If you grew up homeschooled, were connected to a homeschooling community, or knew homeschooling families, than the anecdotal reality of a “homeschooling math gap” is probably intuitively obvious to you. Among homeschooled graduates and others who were involved in homeschooling communities in a variety of ways, it’s pretty much accepted as common knowledge that homeschooled students typically excel in reading comprehension and verbal skills, but struggle in STEM fields. Evidence for this lies even in my own experience– I was in the 98th, 99th percentile for reading and verbal, but average or below average in math and science on every standardized test I took. I have only personally encountered two people in twenty-five years who didn’t fit this pattern.

This isn’t just anecdotal, as well. Researchers have confirmed the existence of a homeschooling math gap for decades. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (full disclosure: I’m a board member) has a study coming out soon confirming this reality again, so this is not just unsubstantiated rumor and communal lore. Homeschooled students don’t perform as well as their peers in math– not on the SAT, not on the ACT, not on standardized tests, not in portfolio work. The idea homeschooled students do better academically than their traditionally-educated peers is an example of lies, damn lies, and statistics. Brian Ray has been lying to everyone for decades, and so many people have bought it hook, line, and sinker.

As everything I’ve cited above demonstrates, it does appear homeschooled students outperform their peers when it comes to reading and verbal skills. This has always seemed like common sense to me– most homeschooled students, especially once they reach secondary grades, are “educating” themselves, primarily through reading handmedown Christofascist textbooks. Homeschooling culture often involves a lot of reading– constant Bible study, no checkout limits at public library, missionary biographies, “classical” education, the works. I myself read all of Jane Austen and almost all of Dickens before I got to college. Homeschooled students, in my experience, tend to be a literary sort. I’ve known and met tons of graduates who ran newspapers, newsletters, e-zines, livejournals, etc. A lot of us were writers– I myself turned out reams and reams of fanfiction in high school.

The tendency for homeschooled students to be “self-educated” in secondary grades is probably a significant reason why the data shows a math gap. If you can read (which, granted, not all homeschooled students can– I’ve known lots of homeschooled teenagers who couldn’t read), your parents take you to a library somewhat regularly, and you don’t have friends or music or TV or movies … guess what you’re going to spend a lot of your free time doing? I didn’t have anything else to do except practice piano and chores, and in that way my experience was not unusual. It’s a common joke how homeschooled students “talk like a book” and we often understand vocabulary words we don’t know how to pronounce.

None of that is going to help you much if you’re trying to teach yourself algebra, though. Hence: math gap.

***

What I would like to suggest for your consideration, however, is something the data isn’t truly capable of showing: a homeschooling reading gap. Because yes, I read a lot. Yes, I was conversant and articulate. Yes, I had decent reading comprehension skills. I even learned to speed read.

However, what I did not receive was an education in reading.

When I was taught how to write book reports at some point in the sixth grade, what I learned to do was to write a one-page summary of a book, and answer a single question at the end: what was the book’s worldview? What moral lessons had it taught me? How had it reinforced my fundamentalist Christian ideology? … all disguised in the innocuous-appearing language of how did you grow in your faith because of reading this book? That framework was my only method of interacting with literature, and it was present only as a tool of indoctrination. I did not learn about poetic imagery until senior level college classes, and never discussed concepts like theme until my graduate literature classes. Until my Utopian/Dystopian literature class in my second year of getting a Master’s degree, the most recent “literature” (not counting genre fiction or Christian romance novels) I read in its entirety was published in 1907.

The only more modern work of literature I ever encountered was an excerpt from 1984 included, I believe, in the first edition of BJUPress’ Elements of Literature. I can’t find a table of contents so I can’t confirm, but the excerpt followed Winston walking around a neighborhood at night, looking through windows and seeing people imbibing Party propaganda on their telescreens. At the end of the segment, the textbook “discussion” (ha!) questions centered on the evils of television and pushed its students to reject “the world” and a “godless worldview.” Remembering that moment in high school is … it strikes me as incredibly ironic how the publisher chose the one and only section from 1984 they could use as a fundamentalist indoctrination tool. From a book dedicated to how dangerous authoritarian systems use language to manipulate and control, a religiously authoritarian publisher chose a passage in order to use its language to manipulate their students and reinforce fundamentalist ideological control. Just…

I never had an opportunity to explore themes in literature, or read from a diverse array of perspectives, or engage critical thinking to analyze texts. I wasn’t even permitted to read books about characters I was allowed to dislike. Every book I read included a protagonist I was intended to emulate; every book was aspirational and morally correct. What I now know with two master’s programs in “reading” (ie: MA in English and seminary) under my belt is that simply reading a lot of books in isolation is not enough. It is certainly not educational. Literature happens in community– it’s meant to be discussed, shared, engaged.

What I believe an unfortunate number of homeschooled students are missing out on in their humanities educations is … pretty much everything. It is nearly impossible to disguise deficiencies in math education– if you don’t understand long division, you’re not going to be able to do long division. Not understanding the quadratic equation is going to be a serious barrier to doing well on algebra tests. However, you can never read the typical high school canon; never look for themes, motifs, metaphors, and structure; never encounter an ideology different from the white supremacist and Christofascist system at your church … and a standardized test is never going to catch it. Instead, you’ll probably turn out a bit like me with a 710 on the verbal portion of my SAT and still be the most hopelessly uninformed, illiterate, naïve reader imaginable.

Photography by C. Barata McKee
Theology

a podcast so epic I’m writing a book about it

Back in the spring I wrote a series of devotionals for Our Bible App, a daily devotional platform for progressive and liberation-minded Christians. I’ve loved the concept of OBA since I very first heard about it, and was thrilled when OBA’s founder, Crystal Cheatham, asked me to write for them. One of my seminary class discussions inspired me to do a five-day series on the book of Ruth, and I hope you’ll download the app and look it up. If apps and backlit screens just aren’t your thing, keep your eye on here and my Twitter feed for some exciting news.

Sometimes, Crystal interviews a devotional writer for her podcast, Lord Have Mercy, and my interview with her went up about a month ago– I got an e-mail from someone this week who found my writing through Crystal’s podcast, and I realized that in the busyness of my summer I had totally missed it going live!

So, if podcasts are your jam, you can find my episode here: “Samantha Field: Re-Reading Ruth.” I played it from that link using Chrome on my smartphone and it worked great, but I’m sure Lord Have Mercy is available anywhere you like to find your podcasts. If it helps to find it, it’s the September 26 upload. We do a deep-dive into how authoritarian churches operate so successfully, how I escaped fundamentalism but kept my faith, what makes the Bible sacred, how we can still find beauty and meaning in cherished Bible stories, and even some advice at the end about how I got over purity culture.

My conversation with Crystal was so wonderful it’s even inspired me to do something I wasn’t sure I’d ever do: I’m writing a memoir looking at how I went from a KJV-only Bible Thumper to a hippie dippe lovey-dovey WE are what makes the Bible sacred, not God progressive Christian. Very conveniently for me, I can actually list out a bunch of anecdotes and vignettes that trace this transformation almost episodically, so putting it all into a book should be …. I don’t want to say “easy” or I’ll jinx myself, but hopefully not too agonizing.

Back to Crystal, OBA, and Lord Have Mercy. OBA recently moved to a magazine-style subscription service, and I cannot recommend it enough. I’ve been reading OBA’s devotionals for a long time now and they are truly doing the Lord’s work and deserve all the monies. I’m going to start up a subscription soon and Crystal is truly one of Twitter’s shining jewels.

Photography by Spare Tomato
Social Issues

Star Wars on generational trauma and redemption: why Kylo shouldn’t be saved

I took Introduction to Spiritual Formation, ironically, during my last semester at United. The course had been introduced as a requirement after I’d started in 2016, but it was still required in order for me to graduate and it only fit during those last few months. I’m grateful to United for making me take it, though, because it was one of the most rewarding and personally enriching classes I’ve ever had. Some of the coursework and reading assignments will stick with me forever, but none as much as the family genogram.

Briefly, a family genogram is essentially a family tree that tracks more than just who married who and who your cousins are– different genograms can be focused on a variety of elements like medical history or geography. For my Formation class, my professor asked us to go back four generations and examine how that history has shaped us– how has my family culture, our religious and social beliefs, molded me into who I am today? I called up different family members and spent some time talking about those questions– who was Catholic, when did they convert, who deconverted? Where did this person live, what were they like, what do they remember about my great-grandfather? Once I had all those stories and bits and pieces of facts and recollections, I sat down to draw the familiar tree framework I could tie all those bits to.

It took me three, four, maybe five tries. Just to get the basic structure on a piece of posterboard. Visually explaining my family history in that chart seemed like an impossible task, and eventually I had to get creative. The primary problem was: everyone was divorced and remarried, going back three generations. There were children and cousins and ex-wives and aunts and uncles that just didn’t fit neatly onto that simple wire frame. Once I’d managed that, though, I felt something stir in my gut that recognized there was more to the abstract-looking tree I’d sketched than lines and breaks and names. This tree looked broken. It looked painfully pruned and splintered and grafted. There were absences, blank spaces, and dotted lines representing happiness and heartache.

I looked at that tree and saw trauma, reaching back generations. On one side, there was an offshoot where six siblings had gone unnamed– the second they could get away from their monster of a father who’d beaten them and abused their mother, they fled. In my family, they fled from all our collective memories, too. Some figures had every possible symbol, carefully explained in the accompanying legend, and other spaces were empty. I don’t know my great-uncle’s religion because he stole all my great-grandmother’s money and skipped town. Some relatives needed multiple icons next to their name to represent a myriad of conversions over the years as they desperately searched for a faith to comfort their pain.

Making that tree was messy and hard– and far more painful than I expected. How did this make me who I am? the assignment asked, and searching for an answer in all those tangled branches took time.

***

In my classes on biblical interpretation, notably Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist, and Queer Readings of the Bible, we talked a lot about generational trauma and how it affects families, how it affects how we read and what we believe. Working on my family genogram, the generational trauma became blatantly obvious– you could trace it down through the ever-shifting geography of my family, the lost connections and blank spaces. For a while, it seemed like suffering was my family’s only legacy. See all these fractures? See all the rage and hurt behind the missing answers? No one wants to remember the lightning that split this canopy.

Eventually, though, a different image took shape: alongside the trauma was resolve. Determination. Perseverance. Grit. After everything we had been through, each generation picked up the pieces and tried again. We loved, we married, we had children, built lives. It didn’t always work and sometimes ended disastrously, but the family that made me who I am is, in some ways, a miracle. We’ve fought every step of the way to be here, and while there were missteps, most generations did their best to be better than their forebears. My great-grandmother, abused in a Catholic orphanage and forced to raised her children as a single mother in a time where few supports existed for her, brought some incredibly kind and hardworking people into the world. My own mother, a latchkey kid whose personal story is still one of the most harrowing I’ve ever heard, refused to make the same mistakes as her parents and every day showed her daughter how precious she was. My father, from a broken home, kicked out of multiple schools and left with few options besides joining the military, worked his entire life to keep his family safe and whole in a way his home had never been.

I’ve vowed to do the same. I don’t know what my own family will look like, but I will leave behind something worth remembering.

***

So what in the world does all this have to do with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Kylo Ren?

My history is why I don’t think Kylo can be redeemed. To be frank, I’ve never wanted redemption for his character– that xenophobic, brainwashing torturer with masturbatory fantasies about the glories of fascism? Hard pass. I don’t need him to finally choose the Light after slaughtering planets and parents. Some people really are irredeemable, and there are some choices you can’t come back from. This has been a truth at the heart of Star Wars since Return of the Jedi came out in 1983: Darth Vader could kill the emperor, but there was no saving himself. Or, as Yoda told Luke: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Forgiveness is possible, yes. Anakin reached out for the Light in the last few minutes of his life and found peace. But not absolution.

This was the lesson Rey had to learn in The Last Jedi. When she comes to Acht-To, she came to see the Luke who had willingly submitted himself to an audience before the emperor out of love and compassion for his father– as well as the belief that goodness can prevail even in the blackest of hearts. She believed she could do the same for Ben, cross the same divide. What she found, instead, was a Kylo killing his master not as a Jedi defending the helpless, but as a Sith dethroning his master and taking his place. “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” he says to her. Rey chooses Light and life and belonging and resistance over the temptation toward revenge and control.

Looking at the Skywalker family genogram, it also doesn’t make narrative sense for Kylo’s entire story arch to end in him turning back to the Light. For me, at least, redemption narratives have two basic options: the villain or anti-hero inhabits this place in the plot because of trauma, especially generational trauma. Overcoming that, resisting it, redeeming it, involves being honest about your life and what’s shaped you. It means seeking love, wholeness, and healing. The other narrative option is the villain seeks redemption by committing themselves to the work. An excellent example of this is Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The problem with both of these options? They take time– time Kylo Ren in the last film of the trilogy simply does not have. A character coming back from what he’s done in 155 minutes could only be cheap and shallow and horribly unearned.

But for me, the biggest problem is that we don’t see either of these impulses in Kylo’s character, and neither does he have the background justification for the plotline he was chased away from the Light by betrayal or abuse. There’s plenty of both in the Skywalker family genogram, but it’s like he looked at his tree and decided the great-uncle who stole all the money and skipped town was the example worth emulating. His entire life is a calculated decision, not the unaware choices by someone deeply informed by trauma. He’s hungry for power, zealous to destroy any legacy of happiness and healing in his family.

And most troubling to me: his pain is invented.

Leia and Han both agree it’s not their son, Ben, who is making these choices. Not independently. Instead, they believe he’s been twisted by Snoke. In The Force Awakens, we could possibly see that reflected in his emotional instability and rage. However, by the conclusion of The Last Jedi, we know this isn’t the truth. He deliberately kills Snoke not to escape from his influence and manipulation and turn back to the Light, but to assert he is no longer dependent on Snoke and is now ready to assume control of the First Order, which he immediately directs toward his personal vendetta.

The saber duel with Luke on Crait is not revenge for a painful betrayal, but motivated by the same impulse behind killing Snoke: he is outraged any person in the universe exists who would dare tell him what to do. They would deny him power, and that’s all he craves. His self-justification for this is how “wrongly” they’ve treated him, how miserable they made him … denying him power and anything he wanted, trying to steer him away from the Dark Side.

This isn’t the trajectory of a character who yearns for redemption. This is a person deliberately setting the family tree on fire.

Artwork belongs to Lucasfilm and Walt Disney