Feminism

biography of a rapist

The first time we met, we were helping a mutual friend for a class project. They had written an orchestral setting for one of the psalms, and he and I were both percussionists. He entered the band room, laughing at a joke another percussionist had made, before heading to the cabinet and selecting the mallets he’d need to play that night. We were briefly introduced, and worked together companionably enough to record the piece. At the end of the night, I thought he was attractive and funny, but thought it was unlikely that we’d interact much.

We met again under similar circumstances– except that time it was because we were both in the college’s symphonic orchestra and band. I was looking for outlets away from the toxic group environment I found myself struggling in, and so I volunteered to play percussion for Fine Arts. So did he. That semester, it was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, and we ended up spending a lot of time together in rehearsal, which often went past midnight. With long stretches of silence for the percussion section, we had a lot of time to chat and get to know each other.

We bonded over the fact that both of our mothers had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia when were children, and what it’s like to grow up in a household with a disabled parent. Unlike me, he’d gone to public school and I was fascinated with the often stark differences in our education. He was a fantastic storyteller, and I felt like I grew to know some of his closest friends. He’d been in the drumline in high school, and thought the fact that I’d never seen Drumline a grave sin. I grew almost as obsessed with professional drumline as he was, and to this day I still love watching marching band performances. I’ve even gotten into a lighthearted argument with Handsome over the fact that I think Ohio State’s marching band is better than Michigan’s– to a dyed-in-the-wool-from-Ann-Arbor-U-of-M-alum, I might as well argue that the moon is made of cheese.

In one of our deeper conversations during rehearsal, he told me about his twin brother who had been born with learning and physical disabilities and how much he loved him. When I met his entire family, it was clear that he adored his brother, and was fiercely protective of both his brother and his mother. One of the things that I grew to admire about him was how often he’d stand up and defend people with disabilities. Our college campus was small, and unfortunately the handful of disabled students stood out, and were often the butt of jokes and cruel mockery. He could never abide that, and called people on it loudly and forcefully. I respected him, and learned to grow ashamed of my complicit silences. When I started struggling with my own injuries and disabilities, he always defended me even when people started calling me a hypochondriac behind my back.

When I went to visit him, I had the chance to attend the churches he’d grown up in. To me, it was surprising that we not only attended where his family were members, but also visited the church his parents had left some years before. In my experience, people changed churches because they moved to a different state or continent, or they left because of irreconcilable differences. I was so impressed at the time that he still had good relationships with people at his former church. He even had mentors there, men who clearly valued him and what they saw as his spiritual gifts.

That fantastic story telling ability made him an excellent public speaker, and he ended up running for student body president. He was charismatic, outgoing, cheerful. People were drawn to him, and liked him. Working on his “campaign” was some of the most fun I’d ever had. Around that time him and his best friend became somewhat famous for their “Car of the Day” routine. His friend carried around a matchbox car with him, and when prompted would pull it out and start beat-boxing, while he would improv a falsetto-voiced rap about the car. It was always hilarious, even though I usually ended up seeing it multiple times over the course of the day; people would come up at lunch, in the Commons, between classes, and ask to hear their Car of the Day jingle.

For a few years he struggled with trying to understand God’s direction for his life. So many people he respected believed that he was especially gifted for ministry, and I agreed. People would listen to him, would open up to him. He was earnest about studying his Bible, and enjoyed every Bible class he took. At one point he even switched colleges for a year, to attend a smaller Bible college that he thought would offer a better environment for him to understand God’s will. It worked– he decided he was called to the mission field, and we started making plans together to make that happen. We’d get married after I graduated and he’d finish his Bible degree. After that, we’d go work with missionaries he knew in Belgium– a country I’m still in love with. If there’s one place I want to visit before I die, it’s Brussels. All that art nouveau architecture makes me swoon. He loved the missionaries serving there, and we got so excited about spending a few years there before starting our own deputation.

While we were courting and engaged, he would find me in the few minutes between classes and pass me a note he’d written on a 3×5 card telling me how much he loved me, or describing something he liked about me, or saying how beautiful I was. He’d call my voicemail when I was doing homework and leave messages with silly little songs about being in love with me– often with his friend laying down a beat in the background and the two of them would be cracking up by the end. He’d go back and wait in the long cafeteria lines to get me white chocolate macademia nut cookies when I couldn’t stand in line on my own. There were a thousand little touches over the years we were together that I thought made it all worth it.

***

All of that is true– but it’s just as true that he abused me emotionally, physically, and sexually. He demeaned me, called me disgusting names, swore at me constantly. For years he broke me down until I was barely myself anymore. My family and friends said he turned me into a mouse; the word I think describes it best is that I became a non-person. I was not allowed any identity of my own, any desires of my own. Everything in my entire world became about him– what he needed, what he wanted.

He would pinch me, grab me so hard he’d leave bruises, twist my fingers in his fist until I cried. I was terrified that he’d hurt me worse. Many times he threatened to strangle me or beat me– he was just violent enough I believed he would. There was one night when I’d done something “wrong” that I thought he was about to kill me. When things got really bad at one point toward the end, he told me he’d hired a hitman to kill my friends unless I refused to speak to them anymore and as preposterous as that sounded, I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not.

He sexually assaulted me … I can’t even count the number of times.

He raped me, and left scars on both my soul and my body.

This is what I mean when I say that rapists are not monsters. They are ordinary, everyday, likeable people. They have mentors that encourage them, pastors that teach them. They have parents and family they love and protect. You vote for them to be student body president, or enjoy being in their company. They’re your best friend, and someday you’ll have the choice whether or not to believe them when they tell you that their ex is a crazy, lying bitch.

Theology

why Christians can’t trust psychology

At PCC, one of the classes I had to take was “Educational Psychology,” and I was initially puzzled that PCC had a class like that, let alone required every education major to take it. The world I grew up in has a deep, deep distrust of psychology– I can’t even number the times I heard it referred to as as a pseudoscience, like there’s no more truth in psychology than there is in phrenology. There’s an entire cottage industry inside conservative Christianity for “biblical” or “nouthetic” counseling as an alternative to secular therapy methods, which I strongly recommend everyone avoid.

When I got into the class, though, the confusion evaporated. The only “textbook” we were going to read for the class was called Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, and the class only covered two topics: why every psychological theory about education is wrong, and how to emotionally abuse children in a classroom setting (which they called “classroom discipline”). Unfortunately, it was a class I did extremely well in.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about Christian culture’s aversion to psychology– there’s a fivepart series on “biblical counseling” and an entire review series on Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression. Most of that time has been spent trying to show how that point of view is at odds with the evidence: therapy is helpful and can be an incredibly healing experience, while the “methods” that nouthetic “counselors” pursue have been demonstrated to merely re-traumatize victims and cause even more harm.

However, many Christians are willing to speak at length about why they don’t trust psychology, and most of it revolves around how they think it’s impossible to treat spiritual problems — because all mental health issues are of course really spiritual problems– without recognizing the Truth. Psychology, they say, tries to tell us that we’re fine and good and we just need to talk things out, while the Truth of the matter is that we’re not fine and we’re most definitely not good and we need repentance, not therapy.

Interestingly, I’ve never really addressed this claim. I’ve largely ignored it, because I was trying to show that Christians can benefit from therapy, and that the nouthetic approach to “counseling” is damaging and dangerous. However, the more I learn about psychology and therapy, the more I realize that these Christians are right to identify psychology as a threat to their faith system. Modern psychology and therapeutic techniques are fundamentally at odds with evangelical and fundamentalist theology.

I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Most of the Christians I knew growing up have been shouting about this as long as I’ve been alive or could remember. I just didn’t really see it the way they did. How could something capable of bringing healing and peace– backed up by rigorous study– be diametrically opposed to a theological system? All therapists are doing is helping us identify and respond to our emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, and psychiatrists are just trying to find chemical imbalances so we can fix them. How is any of that opposed to Christianity?

And then I started looking into things like cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, and encountered a concept known as negative and positive cognitions (link opens a PDF). As you can see, essentially every single “negative cognition”– the side of the chart that CBT/EMDR therapy methods are attempting to counteract with a “positive cognition”– is not just openly acknowledged by conservative Christianity but actively taught as essential doctrine. Evangelicalism is trying to get everyone to believe in the “negative cognition” side of the chart, while modern therapy wants the opposite.

I am a bad person. Mark 10:18, “no one is good.”
I am shameful. Isiah 64:6, we are “filthy rags” (or used feminine pads, עִדָּה means “menstruation“)
I deserve only bad things. … basically every verse interpreted as “you deserve hell’s damnation.”
My judgement cannot be trusted. Jeremiah 17:9, our heart is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked.”
I am not in control. I Chronicles 29:11-12, God is the “ruler of all things.”
I have to be perfect. Matthew 5:48,” be perfect as God is perfect.”
I am permanently damaged. Ephesians 2:1-3, we are “dead in our sin,” and wrathful “by nature.”
I am in danger. Hebrews 9:27, we are “appointed to die” and then face “judgement.”

All of the others from the chart are echoes of these, in my opinion, and I’m sure we could all sit down and think of many more verses that are used to badger us into believing that we are disgusting worms condemned by a mighty god to eternal torment. These are ideas identified by modern psychology as being harmful to our mental and emotional health, and should be overcome– and I agree. These are also just some of the theological foundations of the Christian evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Eternal Conscious Torment … you can’t get any deeper into the bedrock of that theological system. Contradicting these also means that you’re contradicting another foundational idea: the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

I didn’t see this before. To me, therapy became just a helpful tool and equally as routine and normal as getting my blood pressure checked. I left behind fundamentalist teachings about psychology long before I started looking for secular therapy, so I didn’t realize how deeply it contradicted the faith system of my childhood. And because I started interacting with more “normal” evangelical Christians who also thought therapy was a good idea and “biblical counseling” is a load of poppycock, it didn’t really occur to me to examine how the fundamental assumptions of each might gainsay each other.

I take all of this as just another indication that American Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism are unhealthy to their core. They do not promote mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being and instead lead to lifelong damage. A few years ago I adopted what I think was Jesus’ hermenuetic: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If an interpretation or application of Scripture leads to harming myself or others, it is bearing bad fruit and should not be considered a credible interpretation. Doctrines like eternal torment and original sin cause harm; therefore, they should be rejected. I will prefer readings and interpretations that prioritize love and justice–not empty, meaningless wrath and shame.

Feminism

abusers and the good times

I bought Adele’s 21 album spontaneously. A few of her songs were coming up somewhat regularly on the Pandora station I listened to at work, so when I spotted her album standing in line at Starbucks while on a road trip up to New Jersey I couldn’t help myself. That afternoon was the first time I heard “Someone Like You” and I did not understand it. At all. Later, some colleagues were talking about their favorite breakup songs and after sharing mine– “King of Anything” by Sara Bareilles–  someone said “Someone Like You” was theirs. I snatched at the opportunity to understand what the hell “Someone Like You” is about and why it’s not really really creepy. The conversation didn’t really help, but the last thing they offered has stuck with me:

“Sam, you probably don’t get it because you’ve never broken up with someone you were still in love with.”

I wanted to argue– but I couldn’t. I was still in love with my ex at the time he broke our engagement, but the heartbreak only lasted about a month and then I was nothing but pissed at him. Since those days I’ve come to appreciate the blinding fury that propelled me through the early months of escaping an abusive relationship. For me, there wasn’t any redeeming quality to that relationship. There was nothing worth holding on to, nothing I could remember fondly. He was an abuser, a rapist, and that was all there was to him and our “relationship.”

***

One of the most common statements I hear from people recovering from abusive relationships is something along these lines:

It would be easier if they’d been horrible 100% of the time, but they weren’t. Sometimes, they could be so sweet and caring. It makes me second-guess whether or not it was abuse– how could they be an abuser and be so gentle and loving sometimes?

Here’s the thing I want every abuse victim and survivor to understand: your abuser was horrible all of the time. Yes. Even when they brought you soup when you were sick, or bought you flowers for no reason.

Being “nice” is part of the abuse.

I think we all understand this intellectually. Lenore Walker created the “Cycle of Abuse” model all the way back in 1979, and the pattern she identified hasn’t changed in the decades since she wrote The Battered Woman Syndrome. Most of us are familiar with the three phases: tension building, event/episode, and the honeymoon period. On one level, we probably all know that the times when our abuser is being nice to us is the honeymoon. I bring this up every single time someone asks “why did you stay?” Abusive relationships are not actively violent every single second of every single day, 100% of the time. If it was unremitting agony, no one would stay. Abusers are absolutely dependent on the honeymoon phase — however brief or long it is– to keep their victims with them.

However, there’s more to it than that. Yes, abusers have to be “nice” sometimes or we’d quickly realize there’s nothing to keep us in a relationship. Why Does He Do That? isn’t a perfect book (for one, it relies on gender essentialism for significant parts of its argument) but one thing I do agree with Bancroft on is that if there’s a universal quality in abusers, it’s entitlement. Whatever abusive tactics they use, the goal is to guarantee their victims give them what they feel entitled to. The reason why we can identify similarities and patterns in abusive situations is that abusers are only doing what’s the most effective at getting another human being to cooperate with their entitlement.

On top of guaranteeing cooperation, abusers use “niceness” in the same exact way they use emotional or physical pain. There is not a single shred of genuine care about you and what your needs are. They are not bringing you soup because they were motivated by compassion during your illness. An abuser, by being nice, is getting what they want from you the same way hitting you or demeaning you gets them what they want. Sometimes they want you cowering in fear, but sometimes they want to be worshiped.

Something all survivors understand is that abuse resets your expectations. What you consider acceptable changes to accommodate the escalating abuse, and after a while the constant anxiety and hypervigilance becomes our baseline. When we get any relief from that, or any glimpse of kindness from an abuser, there’s a tendency to fall to our mental knees in gratitude. We’re used to violence and disparagement, and suddenly we’re offered a ray of hope.

Abusers know this.

They’re looking for it. They feel entitled to that gratitude; they crave it. Victims, like anyone else when they’re offered what looks like kindness, express their thanks in one way or another. Except that thankfulness is heightened because we’ve been trained not to expect it, and the end result is that an abuser does something “nice” in order to bask in our gratitude for their mercy. They’re doing it because it allows them to feel magnanimous and noble– look at them, doing something good for the miserable little worm they live with. Their victim certainly doesn’t deserve their kindness, but aren’t they just the most good and loving person for bestowing it?

A second side-effect of all of this is that abusers have to go barely out of their way at all to “earn” a worshipful reaction from their victim. In conversations I’ve had over the last eight years I’ve heard so many people talk about all the good things their abuser did for them like those infinitesimally small acts were fireworks in the park. Oh, but one day they did the laundry when I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed! They cooked dinner that one time! They thought of me when I was giving an important presentation and sent me an encouraging text!

The abuse makes us lose sight of what an above-and-beyond act really is. The “nice” things abusers do are almost always things that any basically decent human being would do for someone they care about. I had to be married to Handsome for literally years before I understood this. Yes, I appreciate all the things he does and tell him so. But him doing the dishes? Not a spectacular thing. I cooked us dinner, he does the dishes. It’s not that he’s so awesome for doing the dishes, it’s that he’d be kind of a jerk if he never contributed.

So, yes. Even the good times were bad.

I understand clinging to the scant good memories we have– some days in the midst of the abuse it’s all we have to go on. Most of the “grandest” gestures my abuser made came during the darkest days, and I was just so awestruck at the time. I’d exclaim about how wonderful he was to all my friends and they’d look at me sideways because I was going on and on about a note he’d written on a 3×5 card. Just … Christ. That was not that great, but I’d learned to expect otherwise.

Them being “nice” to you sometimes shouldn’t make you question whether or not it was abuse. The tricks an abuser uses to keep you trapped or to bask in your gratitude aren’t niceness. It’s just more of the abuse.

Photo by Roman Pfeiffer
Feminism

the Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a straw man, and here’s proof

Quick update: I took a month off after seminary classes ended, and then I had to play catch-up with some of the volunteer work I’ve been doing since the election. That is finally starting to become a manageable about of work, so hopefully starting next week we can get back to regular blog updates!

This was a post I wrote for Relevant a while ago, but they have decided not to publish it (incidentally, the post they did publish was written by a man I dated at Liberty. It’s … insipid, unsurprisingly). The below only covers the first four episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, since those were the only ones available when I wrote it. So, spoilers for those episodes, and for some of the book.

***

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale I was at Liberty University, taking a utopian/dystopian literature class for an English master’s degree. I practically inhaled it, and it was my favorite of all the assigned readings that semester. In her introduction to the work, our professor noted that Atwood had limited her narrative to things that have already taken place. In Atwood’s words, “I made it a rule … that I would not put anything into it that human societies have not already done.”

When I arrived in class to discuss it, I was surprised by several of my classmate’s reactions. I did not expect everyone to love the book, but I didn’t think that some would react as negatively as they did. Much of the discussion that day was devoted to arguing whether Atwood had written nothing more than a straw man. Several claimed that she simply hated Christianity and wanted to give our religion a bad name—that the whole premise of the book was preposterous and stretched the suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Unlike the other dystopias we’d read, The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t criticizing anything that did or could exist. Christians just could not do this, they said.

I struggled with their reaction because I knew from firsthand experience they were wrong. In the years since then, and especially since Hulu’s release of their screen adaptation, I’ve thought often about the irony that my fellow students made their arguments in Liberty’s DeMoss building, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss wrote in her evangelical bestseller Lies Women Believe that the Civil Rights and Suffrage movements had been deceived by Satan’s lie that “I have rights,” and that pursuing those rights made them like sinful Jonah, “estranged from God” (74-76). The largest academic building on Liberty’s campus shares the name of a woman who thought the Civil Rights movement was sinful, and she wasn’t just critiquing the form of the activism, either, but arguing that it is a sinful lie for us to believe that we—specifically women and people of color—have rights.

As I re-read the book and watched the first four episodes of the show, I’ve also struggled with how to put the feelings I have into words. My response is visceral, but I know I’m not reacting to the events of the plot. I don’t live in a country reeling from a plague of infertility and governed by martial law. However, we do live in a world where many Christians proclaim the same ideas as the Aunts and Commanders, and we must admit that The Handmaid’s Tale is no straw man.

During one flashback to the time before handmaids exist, June (Offred) and Moira encounter a woman while jogging whose face contorts into disgust because of the typical workout clothes they’re wearing. My heart clenched in my chest because I have both given and received that expression. Growing up, I looked at women who dressed “immodestly” with disdain; as an adult, I wore a dress to a concert on a conservative Christian college campus that showed a hint of cleavage and my husband remarked he was surprised that several women didn’t actually spit on me, their faces showed that much revulsion. Later in the same scene, a barista uses degrading terms for June and Moira—again because of their workout clothes—and I couldn’t help but think of the countless articles on how yoga pants are “immodest.” Those articles may not use the same degrading language, but the ideas are the same: only women who want sexual attention from men dress that way.

One of the more heartbreaking scenes is in the first episode, when Jeanine is “Testifying” about being sexually assaulted and blames herself for what happened. The other women agree, chanting “her fault, her fault.” That scene saddens and horrifies me in the same way I’m saddened and horrified when I encounter it in Christian books. In Stasi Eldredege’s Captivating, she talks about how she “put [her]self in a dangerous position” because she’d been drinking and accepted a ride back to her hotel—the same rationale Jeanine uses to blame herself for being assaulted (79). In Real Marriage, Grace Driscoll talks about her own assault in similar terms: her assault is “her own sin” (128), she was “condemned by her sin” (132), and she repeatedly emphasizes the need for her to “repent” for being assaulted (127, 129, 130). This idea is ubiquitous in Christian culture, and I’ve experienced the pain of being blamed—and told to repent—for my rapes more than once.

However, one of the strongest themes woven throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is the teaching that women, and particularly handmaids, are a “precious resource” that must be protected. Aunt Lydia teaches the handmaids at the Red Center that this protection is a sign of just how much their culture privileges women—the handmaids are lucky, so extraordinarily blessed, to be so honored. This lesson is emphasized in one of the more harrowing scenes from the show. During a “Salvaging,” the handmaids are told that the man standing before them is a convicted rapist and they are given permission to do anything they want to him. This action is intended to demonstrate that their country actually does value them, and desires to protect them. If they only obey the system, they will be protected; in the rare occurrence when they are not, they will see true justice—but only if they follow the rules. Stray outside the rules and they are “putting themselves in a dangerous position.”

Christian culture is replete with this teaching, and it can take many forms. In popular books and programs, women are given the rules: do not have close friendships with boys, do not be alone with boys, dress modestly, keep yourself pure, don’t allow “heavy petting,” date with intention, seek your parent’s guidance… In exchange for following all these rules, girls and women are promised the protection of God, their fathers, and their communities. In the churches I grew up in, this principle was called the “umbrella of protection.” As long as we stayed under the umbrella of the men in our lives—God, fathers, pastors—we were insulated from the evils of the world.

As we grow into adulthood, however, the rules shift focus. As long as you submit to your husband, remain unemployed at home, do not usurp the authority of men, and find your purpose “only in Christ,” then we can be happy and blessed. Sexual violence and physical abuse are held up as the specters that keep us in line—you will be happy if you do what we say, but if you don’t, then you will not be protected. Nancy Leigh DeMoss is quite explicit about this in Lies Women Believe, speaking of cases of physical abuse:

A woman can—and must—maintain an attitude of reverence for husband’s position; her goal is not to belittle or resist him as her husband … if she provokes or worsens [the physical abuse] through her attitudes, words, or behavior, she will interfere with what God wants to do in her husband’s life and will not be free to claim God’s protection and intervention on her behalf. (149)

According to DeMoss, we must “reverence” an abusive husband and must not “resist” him: if we don’t, God will not protect us. That the handmaids of the Tale are told exactly this—that they must “reverence” the oppressive system and not “resist” it—should be an opportunity for self-reflection and communal repentance for the ways Christians continue to subjugate women.

There were so many more moments in the show that caused me to flinch, or to relive the times I’ve experienced what was being depicted. So often, though, it wasn’t about the explicit, but the implicit. For my own mental health I watched the show with a friend, and there were many instances when I would pause and read a section from Lies Women Believe or Captivating or True Woman 101 and exclaim “doesn’t it sound exactly the same as what Aunt Lydia just said?” There’s an ineffable quality to the indoctrination the handmaids are subjected to that is more than just familiar to me. It frightens me how recognizable it was, and it should frighten you.

Social Issues

what Anne Shirley means to me, and surviving trauma

When I first heard about the Anne with an E adaptation, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I was introduced to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books when I was around nine years old, and I inhaled them all, re-reading them all through my childhood and adolescence. I watched the beloved Megan Follows CBC adaption probably as many times as I read the books– that series was sleepover gold for girls my age. In college at PCC, Anne of Green Gables was one of the few things in the library worth watching. I re-read the books for the first time as an adult almost two years ago, and was surprised at how well they stood up to the passage of time. I thought as an adult I wouldn’t connect with them as much, but that wasn’t true. They were just as absorbing and lovely as the first time I read them. I think it’s possible I enjoyed them more– both aesthetically and empathetically.

Since Anne with an E hit Netflix, though, the internet’s exploded a bit with some pretty intense feelings on whether or not this adaptation is “good.” Vanity Fair calls it “bleak,” TVGuide described it as traumatizing, and one review at the Huffington Post says it’s “relentlessly grim.” Individual reactions on Twitter have been just as negative– I’ve seen people calling it a “desecration” more than once. I’ve seen many people argue all over Facebook that they don’t like Anne with an E because it took “happy” and “positive” books and made it all gritty and dark. That seems to be the general consensus for people who didn’t enjoy it, but loved the previous adaptation and the books: to them, Anne with an E appears to be taking a hackneyed grimdark approach for ratings or something.

This is where they lose me. For full disclosure, I haven’t seen it yet although I’m planning to watch it this weekend. However, I just want to focus on the reaction to Montgomery’s books, since that’s what is really bothering me. Everyone is going to have different opinions on film adaptations, and that’s fine and I’m not really here to debate anyone’s response to the show. What is bothering me though is the apparently fairly common perception that the Anne books were rosy and light and sweet and happy and positive.

I apparently did not read the same books.

Granted, I’d describe the writing style as lovely, dreamlike, beautiful … there’s an elegance to the prose and I find the reading experience delightful. However, style is not the substance of the book: the narrative and content are anything but rosy or light. Anne of Green Gables opens with an orphan who has been bought and sold for child labor multiple times, and when describing some of the more traumatic moments of her childhood I got the sense Anne was describing dissociation. The sheer desperation in the opening chapters, which are capped off by the fact that Anne is bullied by an adult … the Anne books resonated with me as much as they did because Montgomery didn’t anesthetize the pain.

How anyone can read through the scene when Rachel Lynde objectifies Anne and is oblivious to her humanity– who without any empathy or compassion calls a child “ugly” not even to her face, but as if she wasn’t a person who could feel the insult … how can someone read through this and not experience the horror and violence? I’ve had adults do that to me. I’ve had adults mock me, belittle me, and dismiss me as if I weren’t recognizably human. Anne’s fury and hurt were my fury and hurt, and I choke as much as Anne does when she’s forced by culture and society– personified by Marilla– to “apologize” to her elder, her “superior.”

That is one of the earliest scenes in the book, and Montgomery doesn’t let up. Anne’s humiliated at school, bullied, ignored; so she decides she’s going to dedicate herself to academic success because she knows it’s her only route to acceptance. She throws herself into school in a way only someone who’s been abused her entire life can really recognize or appreciate, I think. Reading through it as an adult who finally had her lifelong anxiety disorder diagnosed, I was astounded at the ways Montgomery writes Anne dealing with all types of nerves, especially social anxiety. Anne’s coping mechanisms are my coping mechanisms, and part of me wonders if I learned to cope with anxiety and depression by reading these books.

Anne through the rest of the series is drawn to hurting, suffering people. Marilla and Matthew hurt in their own private, silent way. She befriends Aunt Jo, who is grieving the loss of her lifetime companion (read: lesbian lover). She convinces Rachel and Marilla to take in the Twins, whose life had certainly not been a rose garden. Then there’s Lavender, the older woman filled with regret and pain and loss, and who Anne manages to bring some happiness. This pattern is echoed in each of the books– Elizabeth Grayson and Katherine Brooke in Anne of Windy Poplars, my favorite, and Leslie in Anne’s House of Dreams, and then her own children follow the same pattern of reaching out to hurting, lonely people in Rainbow Valley.

All through the books, Anne struggles with self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and the leftover ramifications trauma and abuse leave behind, regardless of how happy her life with Gilbert becomes. There’s always the sense that she’s not quite accepted, not quite loved, that she always has something to do, to prove, to become, in order to be seen as valuable and wanted. She has wonderful people in her life who affirm her and love her, but they’re never quite able to overcome the voice inside her own head.

What bothers me about the reaction to Montgomery’s work is that we’re all doing what society always does: we don’t listen to children. We don’t believe them. We dismiss them. Anne declares in the opening pages of Green Gables that she is feeling despair, and our reaction is usually to read that as histrionics. Except look at what’s happening: she’s been sold off as child labor to horrible, abusive people for eleven years and this is the first glimmer of hope she’s ever held in her hands– and then Marilla announces she’s not wanted, that she has to go back … Despair is the only possible reaction to this situation. But Anne is a child, and so we treat her like her feelings aren’t real, that she’s not actually entitled to them. We’re just like everyone else in Avonlea constantly telling her to pipe down and stop being so melodramatic.

Most of the bullying I experienced as a child were for similar reasons. I was smart, articulate, outgoing, vivacious. The more I spoke up, the more I tried to be myself, the more I was rebuked and rejected– and not always by my peers, but by adults who should have known better. But society sided with them when they belittled me in public and my anger wasn’t acceptable. Like in Anne’s life, I’ve always had good people around me loving me and valuing me, telling me I’m good and worthy of love– my mother even adopted Cornelia Bryant’s phrase about “knowing Joseph” from House of Dreams. “They just don’t know Joseph, Samantha, ignore them.” I still comfort myself with that phrase today. To me and my mother it means that there are just some people in this world who don’t understand us and won’t like us, and that’s alright. Not everyone is going to, but the people who do “get” us are blessed by who we are, just like we’re blessed by our friends.

I’m looking forward to a show that takes all of the things I loved about Anne seriously, that doesn’t flinch away from what her life was actually like. What I’d like us all to remember that lovely and true can go together; the books can be delightful and rapturous and make us long to live on Prince Edward Island and they can show us what it could look like to blossom and thrive in a world full of pain.

Artwork by James Hill
Feminism

why aren’t Christians outraged by sexual abuse?

Because I wrote an article for Relevant a while ago (“What Christians Get Wrong about Sexual Abuse“), every so often I get e-mails from their editors asking for pitches on specific topics. This week, they asked for an article titled “Why Aren’t More Christians Outraged by Sexual Harassment Scandals?”, referencing the recent firing of Bill O’Reilly for sexually harassing women at Fox News. I pitched them something, and they published it yesterday.

You can read the whole thing here. I’m a little annoyed at Relevant‘s habit of sanitizing my writing. They removed me quoting Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” line, as well as the word rapacious and various other things. But … considering my first draft included the line “women are just supposed to be animated sex dolls that occasionally do the dishes” (which I cut in later drafts, upon reflection) I may be just a little out of touch with what an evangelical audience can tolerate. Possibly. Have I mentioned lately how much I love you all for reading me even when I’m horrifyingly honest?

The comments so far have been, ehm, interesting. There’s lots of lovely people saying surprisingly lovely things, and a few people who are … goddess bless them they’re just so clueless.

The semester is really close to wrapping up– my last item is due May 5, and then I have the summer off. Sticky notes for post ideas are piling up on my desk, and I’m excited to get back to that. For now, I’m going to enjoy a lone day off and play some Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited.

Uncategorized

I’m here, I’m breathing

It’s been almost exactly two months since I published my last post. That’s not the longest dry period the blog has had, but it is the second longest– and I wanted to let everyone know that I’ve been thinking of you and that I miss you and writing here in this space.

Every February, I know that seasonal affective disorder is a thing I have and that I’ll have to deal with, and even so every February it manages to surprise me. Handsome had to remind me pretty much every day that when my body literally dumps me on to the floor and says “you’re not getting up, you’re stuck there, nah na na nah na” is not because I’m a lazy ne’er-do-well but because I’m sick. And, like always, “I don’t believe you,” seemed like the appropriate response. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the conversation I have with myself every year:

“Sam, you have like six things to do today. You need to stop staring at the wall and do them.”
“Yeah, well, have you thought about maybe just staying here for no reason?”
“No, seriously. Things. To. Do.”
“Well, I’m the one controlling your arms and legs and your ability to climb stairs so nyah.”

So that was February. The depression started to fade in March … and then I got the flu, and then the flu again, and then a bizarre stomach virus that took me out of commission for a week. I never get sick, so that was an actual shock, unlike February. I haven’t had a stomach bug since I was five, and that’s not an exaggeration. The only time I’ve thrown up since then was an adverse reaction to a medication, and that was over ten years ago. Amusingly, having a can’t-even-keep-water-down-for-two-days sickness doesn’t really hold a candle to what happens when I eat a breadcrumb, so it wasn’t even really that bad.

In the midst of all of that, I’ve planned, run, and attended so many meetings. So. Many. For whatever reason people trust me enough to put me in charge of things– which I both love and hate them for– but trying to keep up with Chairwoman Hat and Seminarian Hat and Resistance Organizer Hat has been about all I can manage– Writer Hat ended up on the shelf. But, I think I’m recovering now, and I’ve decided that the Seminarian Hat is going on the shelf for the summer (instead of taking summer intensives), and Resistance Organizer Hat is being downgraded to Resistance Participant Cap.

That being said, I have three more meetings this week, several more interviews to conduct for my research project, three books to read, and a term paper to start researching for, so I’m probably going to be disappearing again for a while. I am continuing to tweet things, so look for me there (@samanthapfield). I hope everyone is having a lovely spring!

Photo by Lindsey Turner
Theology

update on seminary

Today is a really high pain day (thanks fibromyalgia) and I have a migraine I’m having trouble kicking on top of it … so no Redeeming Love review today. I have a big week and I need to try to put myself back together a little bit. Instead I’d give you all a peek into what it’s like for me in seminary at the moment.

I’m taking two classes this semester– What is Religion and Social Analysis and Community Engagement. I’m excited about both so far, but it’s only a few weeks in so we’ll see if that feeling lasts beyond mid-terms.

For SACE, the big class project involves something called participatory action research— the description of it had so many buzz words I couldn’t help laughing because I had no idea what it really was. Then we read some work by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, a latina theologian who is now one of my favorite people. I’m now in love with PAR, as it’s called, and I’ll be working with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for my project. Depending on what happens with that, I might ask you to be involved with my class project– wouldn’t that be exciting? We’ve also talked a lot about #BlackLivesMatter (!!) and we’re reading a book called Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed— which is, so far, a truly enjoyable book to read as well as being inspiring.

What is Religion is one of the foundational seminary classes, and we got thrown into the deep end with Schubert Ogden’s “Theology and Religious Studies: Their Difference and the Difference It Makes.” That was … I think it was from that era in academia where if you didn’t obfuscate your writing you weren’t being scholarly enough or something. It was a little painful. But, after reading it three times I think the point he was making is an important one (theology isn’t just a massive case of special pleading, essentially).

We also turned in our first paper yesterday– a thesis proposal. It’s a little far out for me to be nailing down a thesis topic, but it’s going to be about something to do with Christian feminist ethics, so I went with it. We were required to put together a research bibliography, and I’m rather proud of it. I think it might also make an interesting reading list for anyone interested in Christian ethics, liberation theology ethics, sexual ethics, or feminist ethics. Since you’re here, reading my blog … chances are one of those is a topic of interest for you.

The bibliography is based on the paper’s requirement to demonstrate my awareness of and ability to interact with the “cultural and theological heritage” of my faith, so that’s why there’s Kant and Barth and Thomas Aquinas in there. It’s an attempt to incorporate the significant Christian ethicists in my tradition as well as pointing to all the significant and most relevant, formative texts in this particular sub-field. If anyone is noticing a huge gaping hole in this, feel free to point it out to me.

Barth, Karl. Ethics.

Cannon, Katie. Black Womanist Ethics.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.

Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues.

De La Torre, Miguel. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins.

Farley, Margaret. Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.

Harrison, Beverly. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

Neibuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.

Nelson, James B. Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology.

Parsons, Susan Frank. Feminism and Christian Ethics.

Simmons, Frederick and Brian Sorrells. Love and Christian Ethics: Tradition, Theory, and Society.

Sullivan, Roger J. An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics.

Welch, Sharon D. A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation.

West, Traci C. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter.

Bonus point for me: Embodiment was written by a professor at my seminary back in the day, and his work is one of the reasons why United is known for being one of the earliest LGBT-affirming seminaries in the country. United is also in the process of becoming a sanctuary school, and they released a statement opposing Trumperdink’s Muslim ban– just some of the many reasons why I’m happy I’m at this particular seminary right now.

I’m also taking on more work politically– I’m getting very involved with the local Democratic organization, as well as the organization that sprang out of Pantsuit Nation when the original founder decided to keep PN “story-based” (grr). It’s called Together We Will, now, and there’s local and state-level chapters of it, as well. It might be a group worth looking into if you want to be more active in your resistance to the regimeadministration.

Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: winter edition

First up: my new blog feature of making blog recommendations. I’ve fallen a bit out of touch with the blogging community, and this is my solution to that, as well as starting to help build connections. We’re going to need that more than ever in the days to come.

Everyone, meet Bailey. She writes at her blog Ezer, which y’all know is a nod to ezer kenegdo and the big complementarian vs. egalitarian debate about “helper.” She reminds me a lot of me when I was first starting out. Obviously we disagree on some things, but her writing and thought process makes me want to engage with her– when I usually just want to rant at people about how ill-informed they are. It was a welcome experience.

I’m also very excited to introduce Zaynab, who runs the Queer Muslims blog on tumblr. Her twitter and the tumblr she runs are good resources, in my opinion, and I’m so happy to have discovered them.

Feminism

I responded to Kate Shellnut’s “Women’s March Sets Out to Exclude 40 Percent of American Women” by tackling the misunderstandings driving the whole conversation and talking about the limits of “big tent” feminism. There was one part of Kate’s article that bothered me, but I didn’t have the time to really dig into since it needed an article of its own. Thankfully, Ruthie Johnson wrote on it: “Stop Appropriating Intersectionality.”

A colleague of mine wrote this, and I absolutely adore it because it made me Think New Thoughts. I present “Discourse in the Garden of Eden” by Amethyst Marie.

Abortion is a Social Good” by Veronica Flores is not as well-argued as I would like (in the sense that her intended audience is already convinced abortion should be legal and accessible), but it’s a less abrasive presentation of this argument than many that I’ve come across.

Judith the Activist” by Alicia Jo Rabins is a good introduction to this apocryphal character that we should all be better acquainted with. I’m a big fan of women weaponizing femininity because I have a dark sense of humor, so Judith and Jael have a special place in my heart.

I’ve known for a while that Monopoly was stolen from a woman inventor, but I had no idea how awesome her story really was. “Monopoly’s Radical, Anticapitalist, Feminist Origins” was a great read.

In the “things everyone needs to be aware of category,” we have “‘I Have to Text my Rapist’: Victims Forced to Parent with Attackers” by Thom Patterson. And yes, this even applies to fathers who were convicted of assaulting their child’s mother.

Racism

Sometimes There are More Important Goals than Civility” by Vann Newkirk II is, in my opinion, incredibly well written and well argued. It does everything I want good argumentation to do– acknowledge the strengths of your opposition, the nuances in the argument, and then shred them all to bits. Respectfully.

If you haven’t read “White Evangelicalism is White Nationalism” by Fred Clarke, read it now and then bookmark it as a resource. I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations over the next four years where it will be relevant.

Misc.

Not everyone is a literary nerd like me, so “In Defense of Facts” may not be the writing you’re looking for, but honestly William Deresiewicz is commenting on a broader trend than just John D’Agata’s A New History of the Essay. I don’t know how I ended up on the side defending Facts and Truth, but somewhat hilariously I am and I’m also arguing that everyone else should care about them, too. How I changed places with fundamentalists on this, I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

Books and TV

Facebook had been pushing The Magicians trailers on me for a few weeks, so I decided to watch the first season on Netflix before the second season aired. I did not regret it. Like most new shows it takes a bit for the writers/directors/actors to gel, but once they it got interesting. It’s being advertised as “Narnia meets Game of Thrones” which confused me at first until I figured out that “_____ meets Game of Thrones” doesn’t mean “______ meets epic scale or political intrigue”– it means “______ meets We Kill So Many People. So. Many.” Mostly it’s just very … whimsical yet dark. Like things are cute and light-hearted and a little bit quirky and then someone kills a puppy or a fluffy bunny rabbit and oh my heart. So– I warned you. It’s good, but may not be for everyone.

Also: massive trigger warning for the season finale, where there’s a rape scene. I trust the writers and directors and show runners not to ruin it for me and I think they’ll handle the storyline well, but it was really triggering … largely because of how well it was shot, interestingly enough. I’m not usually triggered by rape scenes because they’re usually … well, the “masked man in a bush, she fights and screams and kicks and also we’re going to make it seem a little bit sexy” variety. The one in The Magicians is much closer to my actual experience and what I think rape is actually like for many of the people who experience it. They don’t sexualize it, and it’s compassionately filmed … all of which made it difficult for me to handle. I think it does get one thing amazingly right: the character who is raped doesn’t fight, and doesn’t really articulate a verbal “no” in any way that I can remember … and it is still absolutely clear that her character is most definitely not consenting. For that one thing alone I can appreciate what the show did by including a rape scene. It’s clearly, unambiguously rape, but they did it without signaling that to the viewer in a way that reinforced rape culture.

I read Ender’s Game as a young teen, and that book shaped a lot of my experiences over the next eight years. I’ve read it somewhere around a dozen times– I’ve bought multiple copies of the book because I’ve worn a few out. So when Earth Unaware, a prequel set during the First Formic War, came out I was so excited. I read the first prequel trilogy over Christmas and then went to the bookstore to buy The Swarm the second I finished Earth Awakens. It introduces a new character, a Buddhist chemist, who is amazing. Most of the characters are amazing– Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston are doing a fabulous job.

I also really enjoyed The Invisible Library trilogy by Genevieve Cogman. It was delightful, and I’ve blown through each of the books. Each one has a different flavor– the first is solidly steampunk although I wouldn’t necessarily categorize the next two in the same way. It subverts a lot of tropes and it has a “magic” system that my writerly heart deeply appreciates. One complaint: Genevieve does the thing where her main character thinks of herself as “plain” but like three dudes and some ladies interact with her like they think she’s gorgeous, so blah. But otherwise I liked them.

I read Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch a while back, and I’m liking the sequel Windwitch just as much– sometimes second books aren’t as successful as first books, but I think this one is standing up to the promise of Truthwitch. I enjoyed Susan’s explanation of her writing process, too– “Writing Out of Order.”

Larkin and Erik K both recommended that I read Michella Sagara– and while the library never got her book in for me, the first book in Chronicles of Elantra was 99 cents recently so I downloaded it. Cast in Shadow was entertaining– I don’t usually read fantasy series that are intended to be a “monster of the week”-style story, but I’m enjoying the second book so far. Although, question for you two: where does Michelle go with the flower on Kaylin’s cheek (cough cough)?

I also convinced my dad to buy Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky for my mother for Christmas … and then I read it. Because obviously the way I’m dealing with everything that’s happened since November is reading every book I can lay my hand on. A Hat Full of Sky was what you’d expect from Terry Pratchett: solid gold, and an amazing ending that manages to communicate Deep and Abiding Truthfulness without gettting preachy.

***

So what all have you been reading and watching?

Photo by Laszlo Ilyes
Feminism

The Women’s March is a Culture War

I was raised to be a culture warrior.

As a member of Generation Joshua (the first generation of homeschoolers), I was supposed to be a well-trained advocate for the theocratic Christian fundamentalist cause, through any means I had access to. In college I picketed reproductive health clinics, I protested, I went door-to-door getting signatures for ballot measures, I went to political rallies. I spent the bulk of my life trying to convert people to Christianity, or persuading more moderate Christians to join my causes– young earth creationism, King James Bible Only-ism, complementarianism, the stay-at-home-daughter movement … One of the issues I cared about the most was abortion, which I saw as murder and wanted to restrict through any means necessary. If that meant forcing those murderous clinics out of business, or making it too difficult for women to get an abortion, so be it.

I saw it as my Christian obligation to convince as many people as I could that women are supposed to submit to their husbands, and that feminism is a lie from Satan meant to pull women onto the path of destruction. I believed that being my version of a godly woman would shine like a beacon into the world and demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity. To me– to most of us, I think, the Culture Wars were never just about changing the laws: it was about changing the culture around us. Taking back my country for Christ couldn’t possibly be accomplished unless most of us were fundamentalist Christians, and that meant we needed more than just mere conversion. I wanted to radically and fundamentally alter the way my culture saw social, historical, political, and religious issues.

It’s perhaps ironic that none of that has actually changed. Oh, it’s changed in substance, but not in form.

***

I went to the Women’s March on Saturday, in DC. I marched with a group of straight, bi, lesbian and trans women, non-binary people, Jewish women, a Latina woman, and one straight cisgender white male ally. Most of us had gotten together for a sign-making party the weekend before, and chose a variety of phrases for our signs. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale, was a favorite. I’d been torn between a few ideas for my own sign in the weeks before. “Fear is the Mind Killer” from Dune, or “I will be Non-Compliant,” a reference to Bitch Planet, topped my list of possibilities a while. I was trying to figure out what I wanted the Women’s March to mean to me, what I wanted to remember about it and why I’d gone.

Eventually I settled on a quote from Susan B. Anthony: “Organize, Agitate, Educate must be our war cry.”

I chose it for a variety of reasons– I’m a huge nerd being one of them– but mainly I chose it because it’s what I wanted the March to do. I want every person who marched to become a part of the resistance against hatred, bigotry, and totalitarianism; I want us all to agitate to make our voices heard and make our message clear; I want those of us who can to educate the people who don’t know what’s at risk and what they can do to stop it– or change it.

So I imagine you’ll understand that I find some of the reactions to the March … disheartening. Over the past few days I’ve seen a slew of facebook posts and articles going through my newsfeed, most accompanied with something like “THIS.” There’s one about how men not being patriarchal enough is why we marched. Or another condescendingly and patronizingly “apologizing” to women who have it so much worse than these ridiculous American women who just don’t know how good they have it and how selfish they are (to address the claim that American women have it so good, please read this, this, and this). It’s been frustrating, to say the least, because my vision for Marching was so clear, but I didn’t know how to explain to my friends how we’re seeing that protest in fundamentally different ways. There’s a lot of language being bandied about how vulgar it was, how demeaning, how disrespectful, how pointless and all I could articulate to myself was arrrrrgh!

Finally, one friend asked “Which rights don’t I have that I’m supposed to be marching for?” and that’s when it finally crystallized for me what the people I know aren’t understanding about the Women’s March. It’s not about formal, legal, written-on-paper, law-of-the-land capital-R Rights. Technically, in America, women have “Rights.” We can vote, we can own property, we can serve on juries, we can be autonomous legal agents, we can inherit, etc. Coverture is gone and suffrage is here. In the words of Ainsley Hayes, “The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure.”

The Women’s March is many of the women of this country declaring a culture war on misogyny, hatred, bigotry, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, femmephobia, and one Party’s intent to destroy not women’s “Rights,” but all of our freedoms: The freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, the freedom to peaceably assemble. It’s not just our Bill of Rights that are under a war of attrition, either. Women marched this past Saturday because our realities are not all the same, and we have to protect each other. Some women are complaining that they feel “demeaned” by the March because they don’t personally feel that they needed it. Like Ainsley Hayes, they feel “humiliated” by the very notion that some women don’t think we’re equal (which, hate to break it to you ladies, we’re not).

I could go on. The list is, for all practical purposes, endless. I didn’t even begin to touch some of the other horrific and nightmarish problems we have in this country. Many of the ones I’ve listed above affect men as well, obviously. And even though I’ve highlighted a few places where women don’t have Rights, the larger problem isn’t whether or not we have laws in place that enumerate these rights. In some cases we do, in some we don’t. Regardless of a legal reality, it’s not a practical, livable reality until all people are truly seen as equal.

I will organize with others to enumerate or protect our rights. We will agitate against a government that wants to strip all of us of our protections, to hamstring every attempt to fight violence against women. Together we’ll educate others on the risks we face and how to fight.

I decided not to let my fear keep me voiceless, motionless, actionless, so I marched. Not to be vulgar, not to sow division, not to be angry and bitter. I marched because who we elected president is a symptom of a cultural problem, not its cause– and it’s a culture I will go to war against.