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Feminism, Theology

finding new meaning in familiar characters

I’m working on another Redeeming Love post, but I took an actual break this weekend so I have to make sure all my seminary reading is completed by tomorrow. Hopefully you’ll see another review post on Wednesday, but no firm promises.

Today I’m posting a reflection paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance” class, in response to this prompt regarding readings on Ruth, Sarah & Hagar:

Choose one of the perspectives that differs from your own. What did you learn from that writer? How does that perspective on Gen 16 and 21 challenge, expand, sharpen your interpretation of those stories?

I’ll be referencing two chapters we read. Donaldson’s piece looks at Orpah from a Native American point of view, and argues that Orpah’s decision is an analog to the decision by Native Americans to preserve their culture and identity in the face of white colonialism– that Orpah is the brave hero in this situation, not Ruth. She challenges the accepted narrative that Ruth was the brave one for leaving her homeland and religion. Similarly, Williams explicates the ways the African American community has pointed to Hagar as a symbol and touchstone. Both were incredibly powerful readings.

***

Before I came to United for seminary, I completed the program for a master’s degree in English at Liberty University. I learned a lot there, but one thing that this class has already shown me is that I’m used to reading books the way the book tells me it wants to be read. I can’t think of a time previous to this class when that interpretive assumption was challenged: I almost always agreed with whatever text I was reading about who the “bad guys” and “good guys” were of every story. If there wasn’t a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship like that in the book, there were almost always clues about who I as the reader was supposed to identify with, or who I was supposed to “cheer on” as I read.

Sometimes a story takes advantage of that assumption, and subverts it. House of Cards, while not a book, is an engaging story that pulls the viewer into the internal world of Frank Underwood but instead of making the villainous character the “hero of his own story,” the show unabashedly admits that their main character is the villain. It’s a challenging point of view that is occasionally disturbing—how could I want Frank Underwood to win? And yet, sometimes, I’m delighted when he does. However, in the end, I’m still being told by the scriptwriters how I’m supposed to respond to their characters.

Reading two perspectives over the past few weeks highlighted this assumption for me: Laura Donaldson’s “Sign of Orpah” and Delores Williams’ “Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation.” I’ve read the story of Ruth many times, and each time had a reaction much more like Celena Duncan’s in Take Back the World. I adore Ruth and what she’s come to mean to me over my life—Orpah, to me, was barely anything more than a narrative foil. Donaldson’s response to Orpah was amazing to me, and while I loved seeing such a beloved narrative in a completely new light I am still investigating why it never would have occurred to me to see Orpah as really a character in her own right and what she might mean to others. The text dismisses Orpah, so that’s what I did, too.

A similar thing was happening in my reception of Sarah and Hagar, as well. My mother has always identified very strongly with Hagar and her name for God as “the God who Sees Me,” as my mother puts it … but I never really felt that pull. Later in my life it was just a painful reminder that God most definitely does not see me, or if They do, doesn’t much care. I preferred Sarah and her pragmatic—even cynical—and sardonic reaction to God’s promises. I sympathized with Hagar and found much beauty in her side of the story, and always saw those two in tension with one another. There wasn’t a clear “bad guy” in the text, but there is still a narrative preference. Sarah is Abraham’s wife, the matriarch of Israel, and Hagar was just sort of an unfortunate blimp in their story, a mistake. A mistake God took care of, but still a mistake. I was much more like the rabbis trying to work out a way for Sarah to be the “good guy” more than I was listening to Hagar’s own story.

Williams showed me how that approach reveals a rather glaring bias I have. I haven’t been required much by the circumstances of my life to peer into the Bible and claim stories that other, more powerful, people have rejected. My queer point of view has given me the opportunity to see some characters much differently than others—like my conviction that Ruth is definitely bi—but I haven’t been required to think outside of the box in different ways. I’m thankful to Donaldson and Williams for helping me get outside my own head.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Family Love

And now, after a long hiatus, we’re digging back in to the Redeeming Love review. If you want to catch up with the review series, you can find the other entries here; there are plot summaries at the top of each post.

[content note for discussions of emotional abuse and trauma]

Plot Summary:

  • The Altmans move into Michael’s cabin.
  • Angel begins liking them, even growing to love some of the children.
  • She becomes convinced Miriam, the sixteen year old, is a better partner for Michael.
  • The Altmans’ buy a section of Michael’s land a build a cabin.
  • Francine reveals that Angel committed incest in order to punish her birth father.
  • Michael and Angel have sex again after she tells him all of that.
  • Then she disappears.

***

At this point in the narrative, Michael stops his physical and verbal violence. He’s not dragging her around, literally kicking and screaming, he’s not abducting her, he’s not telling her how much he’d love to kill her, and every other horrific thing we’ve seen him do up to this point. No: now, we start getting much subtler emotional abuse from him. This isn’t usually how abusers operate; usually it’s the reverse with emotional abuse escalating into physical violence (and abusers may never use physical violence at all). However, despite the order Francine has written, this is where we start seeing the abuse take its toll on Angel.

It’s interesting to me that Francine would most likely be quite horrified at the idea that she’s written a nearly textbook example of an abuser in Michael Hosea, and yet Angel still responds to him in the way a victim responds to abuse. Like here:

Watching John, Angel was reminded of all those weeks Michael had cared for her after Magowan’s beating. She remembered his tender care and consideration. He had tolerated her worst insults with quiet patience. (244)

This is about the halfway point of Redeeming Love, and up until now Angel has maintained that Michael took her somewhere she did not want to be, and was keeping her there against her will. Every attempt at escaping him was met with violence or threats of murder. She was firm in herself, firm in what she wanted, and very firm of her idea of Michael: really no different than every other man she’d known who believed they could take and control anything they wanted, including her body. She’s never been an autonomous person and Michael is just another roadblock to the independence she craves. Remember, Francine has set up this desire for autonomy as literally a temptation from Satan himself.

But now her framing of what happened when he abducted her is shifting. He didn’t force a marriage onto her while she was delirious and then drag her out to the middle of nowhere: he was tender, caring, considerate. She was actually the one with the problem.

Or here:

Tirzah. His desire for her was in that name. Angel felt a tingling warmth run down into her belly when he said it. Tirzah. (261)

Before when he called her anything that wasn’t her name, she would assert herself and correct him. Now, though? Now she’s accepting it. She’s accepting his gradual over-writing of herself and her identity. She’s adopting what he thinks she is and should be. “She didn’t even belong to herself anymore” (252), and the resistance is slowly being beaten out of her.

This couldn’t get any more textbook. Abusers need victims to identify themselves as the problem: a problem that is fixed by subverting our identities and desires in favor of what the abuser wants. Angel is slowly capitulating to Michael’s assault on the very core of who she is as a person, and learning to accept his view of their relationship: he the tender lover, she the stubborn fool.

We can also see another abusive dynamic here:

He wants children, she thought … What if he knew she couldn’t have them? Would his love for her die then? (247)

This is not an unreasonable question, although Francine expects her reader to answer the question with “of course not!” Except Angel knows what all victims know: an abuser’s love is conditional. It’s extremely common for male abusers to be extremely reactive concerning a female victim’s reproduction, too—whether they became pregnant when their abuser did not desire it, or aren’t becoming pregnant when their abuser wants them to.

The other characters also participate in normalizing everything Angel’s been subjected to, even though they don’t know Michael abducted her and married her when she was barely conscious, or that he’s taken to calling her whatever he feels like. In one scene, a younger child calls her “Mandy” (they all think her name is Amanda), and then the eldest child, Miriam, says “I think I’ll call you Miss Priss” (251). No one is allowing Angel her name or identity. Later, Miriam declares “I love you whether you like it or not” (235).

The relationship between Angel and the Altmans display the same relationship style that Francine wants to emphasize: God’s love is irresistible, unending, unyielding, relentless. The Altmans’ relentlessly “love” Angel in a not-romantic analog to Michael’s treatment of her. In the narrative, this slowly wins Angel over just like she’s slowly being absorbed by Michael’s vision for her. They give her gifts she doesn’t want and scream insults at her when she says she doesn’t want them (“idiotic child” 252), they do everything around the farm even when she begins to feel useless, and every time she says something about herself she’s contradicted by who they think she is.

Anytime she tries to assert herself, (“Angel,” she said under her breath. “My name’s Angel.”) it’s portrayed as either resentment or bitterness. Through these chapters we start to get another heavy-handed helping of Francine’s evangelical Christian view of bitterness. Miriam accuses Angel of purposely carrying around baggage with her that she could voluntarily set down, and on the next page makes it clear that the “baggage” she’s talking about is “bitterness” (254-55). Later, when she emotionally withdraws some from the group, Miriam complains to Michael that “she’s hurting herself” (271).

Angel’s reactions are all extremely typical of abuse victims. Keep in mind that Angel was raped constantly and physically abused beginning at age 8 and that experience has continued pretty much non-stop for over a decade. When she responds a way anyone with trauma would, however, it’s not portrayed as reasonable or something a compassionate person should accommodate. Instead, her behavior is universally condemned by the other characters in the book.

Angel has flashbacks and triggers, and after experiencing an episode is anxious and irritable, a nearly classic example of PTSD. Other symptoms of PTSD: avoiding crowds, wanting to keep busy, avoiding relationships, viewing the world as harsh and dangerous … Whenever Angel displays one of these, however, someone comments that she’s only hurting herself or she’s bitterly clinging to the past.

This is a pretty common view of PTSD among American evangelical Christians. Their solution is as simple as Miriam’s: just stop carrying the baggage. But when Angel tells her it’s not that easy and a lot more complicated than that, Francine makes it clear that Angel’s view is the wrong one and it’s just her sinful nature and Satan whispering in her ear that makes her think so.

***

Also relevant: the entire Altman clan thinks Michael is just so perfect and wonderful and godly and loving. Gee it’s great that most Christians don’t view abusers this way. It’s not like we put them up on pedestals or elect them President or something.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: God and Family

Plot Summary:

  • Michael realizes he’s been incredibly bad at actually taking care of Angel.
  • He takes her to Sacramento, where he buys her fabric for clothes.
  • He takes her to church, where she has a panic attack.
  • On the way back to the farm, they meet a family in a broken wagon.
  • Michael offers to let them stay in his cabin, informs Angel they’ll be sleeping in the barn.
  • Angel has a flashback to when Duke had her sterilized.

***

This section brings us back to more character introspection instead of action; Francine halts plot movement in order to have the space to tell us how Angel and Michael feel about everything instead of integrating that into the storytelling. I know I’ve started basically every review post saying “this is a badly written book,” but it’s true, and I just keep being reminded of it. So, I’m passing that on to you, dear readers.

Chapter seventeen opens with how guilty and dirty Angel feels– she “wanted to make up for what she had done, and sought to do it by labor” (211). This is, clearly, Francine beating us over the head with the salvation allegory she’s worked into Redeeming Love, and is condemning Angel for thinking that works can earn forgiveness. It’s also making sure we the reader know that Angel has done something that needs forgiveness– and we should all be at a loss for what, but we’re not. Angel has done nothing. She was abducted, and escaped her abuser at the first opportunity … and then was forcibly dragged back again. As Francine’s readers, though, we “know” what Angel did “wrong.” Satan told her that she deserved independence and freedom, and she believed his lie. She’s not just Gomer, now– she’s also Eve (217).

This is where Angel begins accepting Michael’s abuse. He’s forcibly demonstrated that she can’t escape him, no matter how she resists. He won’t use her name, he won’t let her leave, he orders her around (“Go to bed” [212] and “You’re going with me” [214]) and neither verbal or physical refusal stops him. He will simply overpower her; she has no choice left but to accept that this is her life now.

So, like most abuse victims, she turns to scrupulousness. If defiance won’t work, maybe doing everything she can to make sure her abuser is happy will. He told her that the garden was her responsibility (212)– so maybe if she works the garden perfectly he’ll see her as a human being worth respecting. If she anticipates his desires, if she makes the cabin comfortable, if she cooks flawlessly and obeys instantly … maybe just maybe he’ll “forgive” her and stop his abuse. If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because this is the method advocated by every single complementarian marriage-advice book on the planet. The way to a happy and healthy marriage is by being the perfect homemaker. If you’re not dutifully submissive and fulfilling your patriarchal gender roles, your husband will be unhappy and angry and take it out on you. It makes sense that this is the path Francine has Angel take.

***

This section largely deals with Angel’s understanding of religion and God. Frustratingly, her point of view is basically a badly-informed evangelical stereotype of Catholicism, and what’s “wrong” with her understanding of God is “Catholic.” She has a “Catholic” understanding of the Garden of Eden, her interpretation of Bible stories aren’t evangelical so they’re wrong, and of course Catholics don’t read their Bible.

What we as the reader are supposed to take away from this part of the story is that Francine’s view of God is horribly wrong. Evangelicals of course know that God wants to have a relationship with us, that he loves us, that forgiveness and grace are freely available if we just say the word. Angel, however, think that God is angry and wrathful and vengeful, and is waiting up in heaven to crush her “like a bug” (227). She even introduces the Problem of Evil:

Michael took her hand again and wove his fingers with hers. “God had nothing to do with it.”

Her eyes felt strangely hot and gritty. “He didn’t stop it either, did he? Where’s the mercy you’re always reading about? I never saw any given to my mother.” Michael was silent for a long time after that. (229)

Honestly, this is the first thing Francine’s done that I’ve somewhat appreciated. Angel’s life, as Michael described, has been “hell,” and God in his heaven had never intervened. This is a legitimate question, and one I’ve never satisfactorily answered for myself. Redeeming Love doesn’t provide any answers, either– at least not here. I imagine we’ll get the “free will” answer at some point.

However, what Angel and the reader are supposed to understand is that God is not like her father, or Duke, or any of the men she’s known– God is like Michael. God is forgiving and loving and wants to know us, like Michael loves and forgives and wants to know Angel. The problem with all of that, of course, is that Michael is an abuser. Angel thinks that God is waiting to crush her like a bug … and Michael is waiting to drag her off to anything he so wishes. Evangelicals talk a big talk about how amazing their God is, but when the rubber meets the road and they start talking about what God is like in practice and not just in theory, he really is just a bully. He abducts grown women — repeatedly– orders them around, and overcomes all resistance with physical force.

Angel is not wrong about Michael’s God.

***

The last message that Francine wants to beat us over the head with is how wonderful complementarianism and gender roles are. The Jewish storekeeper thinks “As gentle a man as he was, as tender was his heart, there was nothing weak about Michael Hosea” (223), which we know from the fact that Michael took on all comers in a barfight and walked out unscathed. Later we meet the Altmans, and we get this description:

The Altmans fascinated Angel. They all liked each other. John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children. Even Jacob’s [eldest son] rebellion had been handled with good humor. “Whenever you don’t listen, there’s going to be stern discipline,” his father said. “I’ll supply the discipline, you’ll supply the stern.” The boy capitulated and Altman ruffled his hair affectionately. (240)

Through the pages that introduce the Altmans, we get a picturesque, Rockwell-style happy family. The siblings all get along splendidly, and the father is respected, obeyed, and adored. Michael is basically enraptured. He wants them to live in his cabin until spring and be his friends– without bothering to consult Angel, he just decides— maybe even buy the farmland right next to his! They’re just such wonderful people, wouldn’t that be grand? It’s clear Michael thinks they’re the perfect family. He even falls asleep whispering about how he wants one basically just theirs (241). A family where his word is law and everyone is just so dang happy about it.

Which is of course where we get hit with a double-barrel flashback to Angel being sterilized. I can’t wait to see where Francine goes with that.

Feminism

Gatekeeping vs. Coalition Building

The second I first heard about a possible march happening in DC the day after the inauguration, my reaction was where do I sign up. Marching will not be the only way I resist the incoming regimeadministration, but I will stand in the streets tomorrow and scream my rage and sorrow with my sisters. I know many of you can’t– having fibromyalgia means I will be paying for this all next week, so I understand not being able to make marching work for you. I also know not everyone feels that the Women’s March tomorrow either represents you well or is something you want to give your energy to, and I respect that.

However, since Wednesday, a large part of the conversation of can I, should I march on Saturday has revolved around abortion, and I feel that the conversation has been plagued with misrepresentations. We are talking about abortion after all so the fact that everything is being flagrantly misunderstood is unsurprising. Since I’m in seminary primarily to advocate for reproductive justice in my Christian context, this conversation is critical to me, and I want to try to push it in an honest and fact-based direction.

The discussion we’re having was sparked when the Women’s March leadership decided to partner with an organization called New Wave Feminists. I am frustrated with the people who made that decision because it’s clear that New Wave Feminists was not vetted at all. If they’d looked into this organization, they would have found out that the founder testified in favor of HB2 in Texas (the bill Wendy Davis filibustered)– the bill that would have removed abortion access from most women in Texas. New Wave Feminists also lie about hormonal contraception and their founder said that women shouldn’t be “full-service sluts.” The goal of this organization is to restrict abortion access, restrict access to birth control, and control women’s sexuality. It is not an organization that the Women’s March should support, and they were right to remove them as partners.

However, after removing them as partners, they faced some criticism. I heard about it because Rachel Held Evans– as y’all know, one of my heroes– tweeted “Progressives have a chance to build a broader coalition here, and they are blowing it” … which was incredibly disappointing because of the narrative that weaves. Over the past two days I’ve seen a ridiculous number of people claim that the Women’s March is forbidding any pro-life woman from participating, which is just ridiculous. Removing an anti-woman organization from partnership and being unwilling to partner with those who want to make abortion illegal does not mean that pro-life women can’t march, if they want to. They couldn’t have made that clearer.

Rachel’s tweet– and the widespread sentiment her tweet represents– was also incredibly frustrating on top of being disappointing because this situation is the result of a terrible amount of confusion. The New Wave Feminists are an organization pro-lifers like Karen Swallow Prior, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans want to defend? People who lie to women, who lie about medicine, who shame us and demean us? Who call us “sluts” for having sex, who misrepresent themselves and their goals?

I have saidrepeatedly— that I want to work with the sort of pro-life women Rachel represents. I value their work, I value them, and I understand where they’re coming from. In the past I’ve respected their position because I saw it as realistic, loving, and consistent. I welcome their particular articulation of pro-life ethics into my feminist work with open arms. I may think that abortion is ethical, but I understand having reservations. This isn’t an easy issue– and, regardless of why any particular person may be having an abortion, it represents a failure somewhere. People who will fight with me to overcome those failures– who want to make birth control accessible, who want accurate and thorough sex education, who want to remove the cultural oppression that force women into these situations– I want you at my side.

After all, I’m pro-choice. If someone is having an abortion because they have no other option, I do not consider that acceptable. We should be able to choose whether or not we want to remain pregnant, and not have circumstances limit us or force us. We should be able to feed our babies, we should be able to get our children to the doctor, we should be able to keep our jobs, we should be able to recover after giving birth … and it’s wrong that those are the considerations pregnant people face.

So I’m all in favor of coalition building. I think feminism is a big tent and a lot of us should be able to squeeze together under here– even if we don’t always agree.

However.

There has to be a line somewhere.

If you’ve read me for a bit, you know I’m not a fan of shibboleths. I don’t like setting up a bunch of fences and boundaries to movements and I don’t, in general, like people who say “you’re in, you’re in, you’re not.” I like big, broad, encompassing tents. I like it when we don’t always get along, don’t always agree. I want serious discussions, not a bunch of people who preach to the choir all of the time.

But I think it is appropriate and good for feminists to say “being a feminist means you don’t support policies that lead to the suffering and death of women,” and unfortunately, that’s what being “pro-life” means for a not-insignificant part of the pro-life movement. If there’s going to be a line that keeps some people out of the feminist tent, the “you want women to die for no god-forsaken reason” is a damn good line. It’s the only line really worth enforcing. If Feminism weren’t The We Want Women to Not Die tent, it wouldn’t be good for anything.

I’m not apologizing for that being my price of admission. If you support policies and laws that lead to nothing else but suffering and death, I don’t want you in my tent and I don’t understand why you’d want to be in it. Banning abortion, criminalizing abortion, “making it illegal except in cases of life-threatening emergencies” leads to death and suffering. Those actions do not change the abortion rate— they result in the same number of abortions, but more life-threatening medical problems, more death, more abuse, more violence, more tragedies, and yes, women being sent to prison because they miscarried.

On this one issue– whether or not our nation’s laws result in women dying– I will be a gatekeeper. Kate Shellnutt and Hannah Anderson at Christianity Today want to tell me that ““If Dem[ocrats] could have entertained possibility of a pro-life women’s vote, they’d have won,” and it makes me scream inside because that “pro-life women’s vote” was a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal. It wasn’t a vote against rape or sexual assault. It wasn’t a vote to protect our jobs, our wages, our children, our healthcare, our autonomy, or our bodies in any way. It was one vote: to criminalize abortion. To condemn women to needless suffering, unnecessary physical torment, and death for many of us. No, I will not “entertain” that idea, and I don’t think feminism should.

These “pro-life women voters” like the New Wave Feminists have spent a massive amount of time telling us that our actions have consequences– and surprisingly, this is where I agree. Pro-life people who want to ban abortion apparently live in a land without consequences. They want to enforce their religious interpretation of when life begins onto everyone and pretend that nothing bad could ever come of that. That their actions, their choices, would not be the reason why more women would be thrown in prison or killed. They want to ban abortion– even though it would not even accomplish what they want. They want to prevent us from accessing birth control– even though that actively opposes what they want. They want to punish us for even daring to take control of our lives.

If that doesn’t describe you, welcome inside my big feminist tent.

If it does, stay out in the cold and shiver.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Brothers and Bothers

[Content note: discussions of abuse and coercion]

Plot Summary:

  • Paul, Michael’s brother-in-law, returns.
  • He recognizes Angel, thinks she deceived Michael about her profession.
  • Paul leaves to get supplies, demands sex in order to take Angel with him.
  • The Palace burned down, so Angel’s money is gone.
  • She returns to prostitution.
  • Michael finds her, fights everyone in the saloon, takes her back to the farm.
  • Angel tells Michael about her past.

***

As you can see, stuff actually happens in these three chapters (14-16), and there’s so much to dig into. So much. It’s a little overwhelming, especially since this section pushed almost every single one of my buttons. One of the first is how magnificently obtuse Francine is about her own characters. We’ve seen this before, but it becomes a problem in this section when she introduces us to Paul. He’s been trying to “get rich quick” in the mountains, but is returning in an almost prodigal-son-like fashion to the farm, where he also has a cabin apparently.

Francine is attempting to give us a foil for Michael. We’ve only been watching how Michael interacts with Angel, so we’re given Paul in order to demonstrate just how wonderful and supportive and nice Michael actually is, because look at what this horrible brute does to Angel.

He makes an almost-incredible amount of assumptions about Angel– beginning with a bunch of (coughnothistoricallyaccuratecough) stereotypes about prostitutes, leading to the belief that Angel is deceiving Michael about what she used to do for a living, and ends with him convinced that she’s a stone-hearted bitch (a phrase Francine very awkwardly avoids using, which reminds me of the note in the beginning about her editor cleaning the book up for a “Christian” audience). He’s horrifically judgmental, calls her a liar repeatedly, and constantly thinks about being horribly violent toward her. It’s all capped off with him forcing Angel to have sex to “pay” him for the ride into town.

All of this is supposed to be in contrast with Michael … except it isn’t.

Since the very beginning, Michael has done nothing but make assumptions about Angel based on those not-historically-accurate stereotypes– she’s a prostitute, so she only understands one kind of “love.” She’s a prostitute, so she’s shallow and manipulative. She’s a prostitute, so she thinks being on a farm is boring drudgery. Etc. He’s also countermanded her about her own feelings and wants and ideas almost every single time she’s expressed any. A typical interaction is “I want XYZ” and he says “No, you don’t.” And then oh there’s this:

He didn’t want to pity her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth feel out. He wanted to kill her. (204).

This isn’t him being overly dramatic, either, because of what happened earlier: He’s taking her back to the farm while she repeatedly tells him to let her off the wagon. When he refuses, she throws herself off and runs away. He chases her down and starts dragging her back to the wagon while she resists, and then we read:

He almost hit her back, but he knew if he hit her once, he wouldn’t stop … If he had hit her back once, he would have killed her. (195) [On recalling finding her at the saloon] If he hadn’t seen her eyes or heard the way she said his name, he would have killed them both. (196)

Francine has made it as clear as she possibly could that Michael actually literally wanted to murder Angel, but through mountains of restraint somehow managed not to beat her to death. She does all of that, and yet the reader is still supposed to see Michael as fundamentally different and better than Paul. The way Michael and Paul treat Angel is fundamentally the same, but again, Michael didn’t have sex with her and reads the Bible a lot so he’s the nice one– ignore the murderous rages, those are fine.

***

One of the biggest problems with this section of the book is that it buys into common — but false– narratives about abuse. Setting aside the fact that Michael wants to beat his wife to death, he does actually restrain himself from physical violence toward her. Paul does not– during the ride into town, he “hits every hole in the road, bouncing and jarring her … He enjoyed her discomfort” (185). The book condemns his behavior here and in other places– physically hurting Angel is clearly out of bounds for Francine.

The narrative condemns physical abuse while giving us a character who emotionally abuses and psychologically torments his spouse and describing emotional abuse as not just normal, but praiseworthy. Francine utterly ignores the fact that not all abuse looks the same– and when Angel reacts to Michael, the text makes it clear that she’s reacting to her past with Duke, not Michael, and her reactions aren’t trustworthy. Her responses to Michael’s incredibly ominous behavior are supposed to be considered unreliable, instead of a realistic depiction of how a victim would react to someone who’s been emotionally abusing them. When I got to this scene, I wanted to cry:

“Because I love you,” he said thickly. He swung her around in front of him, his eyes tormented. “That simple, Amanda. I love you. When are you going to understand what that means?”

Her throat tightened, and she hung her head.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. He lifted her onto the wagon seat. She shifted over as he pulled himself up beside her. She looked at him bleakly. “Your kind of love can’t feel good.”

“Does your kind feel any better? … I felt like killing you when I walked in that room, but I didn’t. I feel like beating sense into you right now, but I won’t …” (197)

I wanted to scream. This is not what love is. If you haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a relevant scene:

Yondu: When I picked you up as a kid, these boys wanted to eat you. They ain’t never tasted Terran before. I saved your life!

Quill: Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you’ve been throwing that in my face, like it’s some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don’t even think about eating someone else! Much less that person having to be grateful for it!

I’m a big fan of that scene, because as extreme as the Ravagers eating Quill would have been, this thought is practically textbook abuse and Quill’s response is completely brilliant and true. When Michael defines “love,” he says that it’s not killing her and not beating her, like she’s supposed to be grateful.

There aren’t words to describe how horrific and excruciating it is that when Francine is describing what love means, her definition matches that of conservative Christianity’s perfectly. When they say that God loves us, what they mean is that despite all his wrath and fury, he doesn’t murder us where we stand, and we’re supposed to fall down on our faces in worship. “I want to kill you, but I won’t” is part of the bedrock of evangelical theology, and it’s incorporated into any theological discussion of God’s love. It’s sickening.

Another classic sign that Michael is an abuser appears in his internal dialogue after the return to the farm– Angel “betrayed” him. She doesn’t have a conscience. She cut him to ribbons. She should feel ashamed of herself, she was his wife and she left him and had sex with all those other men he could just kill her.

This is textbook abusive entitlement. He practically abducts a delirious woman, manipulates her into “marrying” him, absconds with her to an isolated area she can’t escape, refuses to help her, forces her to work for him, cook for him, refuses to even use her goddamn name, all while she is constantly telling him she doesn’t want to be there, she doesn’t want to be his wife, she wants to leave. And yet when she does exactly all of that it’s such a betrayal he wants to kill her.

And Michael is considered one of the most wildly romantic figures in all of Christian fiction.

***

I promised at the beginning of the series that we’d be talking about survival sex, and we’ve gotten there. Here’s a quick definition and two very good articles about it:

Survival sex is, quite simply, exchanging one’s body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, and shelter.

So, pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Much of the conversation about survival sex focuses on homeless youth because they’re especially at risk, but I think many of us have known an adult woman who had sex with someone in order to have a place to live. It can also appear in abusive relationships– having sex in order to prevent verbal/physical beatings, or to extend to “honeymoon phase.” It’s sex that, given a more ideal set of circumstances, would not happen. It’s sex with consent, but without autonomy. Things like survival sex is why I balk at reductionist approaches to consent— it’s possible that someone can consent, but for their choices to be so bounded that they don’t actually have a choice. It’s consent coerced by circumstances.

This is clearly what is happening to Angel– when she returns to Pair-a-Dice, winter is approaching and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. No food, no shelter, no money. When the saloon owner offers an upstairs room for her to get “back in business” (190), she has no other option. It’s that or either die of starvation or exposure– even if she wanted to go back to the farm and the man who’s been emotionally abusing her, lying to her, and manhandling her, it’s 30 miles away. So, thinking “I’m never going to be free,” (191), she uses sex to survive.

After Michael beats up everyone in the saloon and forces her to come back with him, Francine writes this internal thought process for Angel:

Angel felt the building warm of the sun on her shoulders and remembered Michael dragging her with him through the night to face the sunrise. “That’s the life I want to give you.” She hadn’t understood then what he offered. She had not comprehended until she walked up the stairs at the Silver Dollar Saloon and sold her soul into slavery again …

What have I done? Why did I throw it all away? Paul’s words came back: “You’re not even worth two bits.” It was true … it hadn’t even taken a day for her to fall right back into her old ways …

It was all her fault. All the ifs flooded her: If she had never left Duke … if she had never gotten on that barkentine … if she hadn’t sold herself to any passerby on the muddy streets of San Francisco or gone with Duchess … if she had ignored Paul … if she had stayed here and never left … if she hadn’t gone back to Pair-a-Dice or gone up those stairs with Murphy …

Michael had taken her straight out of the abyss and offered her a chance– and she had thrown it away. (200-202)

Francine is oh-so-conveniently leaving out the rather important fact that what Angel chose for herself was a cabin in the woods– independence and freedom. Given the information she had access to, Michael was not the “chance” she’d thrown away. She had her own chance that she’d worked for. She had a plan that was simple and completely achievable. That the Palace burned down and the Duchess left with all of her money is not something she knew when she left the farm. She didn’t choose Murphy and the Saloon; circumstances limited her. But ten pages of the book make it clear that it was really all her fault and she needs redemption and forgiveness, with God repeating “seventy times seven” in Michael’s head.

This book is grotesque.