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Feminism

Men Prefer Uneducated, Naïve Objects They Can Easily Control

So yesterday, a blog post at The Transformed Wife started floating through my feed– the author, Lori Alexander, titled it “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos.” Multiple people tagged me in the comments, asking if I would write a response and honestly I wasn’t sure I would. When Lori gave it that title, she did it deliberately to provoke a reaction (which she may now regret, she’s deleting hundreds of comments and wrote a post complaining that she’s being “slandered“), and I didn’t want her goad to be successful.

Today, though, I spent a lot of time digging through the comments (a few of which have been a joy let me tell you. Maybe she is only deleting “hate-filled” comments from the side that disagrees with her, but she seems plenty comfortable leaving up the “hate-filled” comments that agree with her), and I realized that a lot of people are generally misunderstanding what makes this particular blog post so bad. A lot of the commenters have pointed out that they have tattoos and weren’t a virgin and their husbands seem to “prefer” them just fine, and that misses the point.

When Lori Alexander says “Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos,” the post makes it clear that she’s pointing to those items as indicative of what she sees is a larger social problem: women who aren’t utterly dependent on their husbands.

My experience growing up in complementarianism, all my research over the last few years, all the review series I’ve done on books like Captivating, Real Marriage, and Fascinating Womanhood points to one thing: complementarianism is intended to render women helpless and strip them of their autonomy. The ultimate goal for people like Lori Alexander is that women should be universally and totally dependent on their male spouse for their safety, shelter, livelihood, and purpose. Walking down the aisle as tattoo-less virgins is just a bonus– the main focus of the post is that women should not be college educated because it makes it more difficult for their husbands to control them.

There are many more reasons why Christian young women should carefully consider whether or not they go to college, especially if they want to be wives and mothers someday. Secular universities teach against the God of the Bible and His ways. It’s far from what God calls women to be and do: it teaches them to be independent, loud, and immodest instead of having meek and quiet spirits.

“The husband will need to take years teaching his wife the correct way to act, think, and live since college taught them every possible way that is wrong.” Sadly, most young Christian women wouldn’t listen to their husbands since they’ve not been taught to live in submission to their husbands.

Young women learn nothing about biblical womanhood or what it takes to run a home when they go to college. They don’t learn to serve others either. They learn the ways of the world instead.

Most girls have not read the Bible with their father (Ephesians 6:4) or husband to explain it to them (1 Corinthians 14:35). That part is important. Instead of learning it from their parents, they seek out books or movies on how to interpret the Bible which leads them down the wrong path.

Lori is heavily quoting from a letter she received and agreeing with it, and both she and the letter-writer spend hardly any time talking about tattoos or sexual purity. In fact, “tattoo” is only mentioned in the title, the first line, and the last line. Everything else is a discussion of why women shouldn’t be college-educated, and these are the reasons Lori gives:

  • they will learn to be independent
  • they won’t “listen to their husbands” and submit
  • they won’t want to be their husband’s servant
  • they’ll learn the “ways of the world”
  • they could read books and interpret the Bible for themselves

Instead, Lori advocates that women should skip college, refuse a career, have as many “precious babies” as they can squeeze out– and remain as helpless and naïve as possible. That’s the image she’s trying to evoke by using “virgin without tattoos.” She wants women to be uncorrupted by the “ways of the world,” to be innocent; what she’s describing is the idea that a woman should reach marriage a blank slate for her husband to carve. They should have no ideas of their own, and no ability to cultivate ideas on their own. What they think about their life, the decisions that affect them, and their interpretation of the Bible should all come from their husband. This is the definition of “biblical submission” that Lori wants Christian women to adapt: Think what your husband tells you to think. Do what your husband tells you to do.

Lori is absolutely correct that a college education will interfere with this goal. When I decided to go to college against the express teaching of my church, nearly everyone I knew had a fit. The pastor preached messages about it, I got Sunday school lessons dedicated to it, my best friend gave me pamphlets for “college level homemaking courses.” They all told me exactly what Lori is telling her readers: if you go to college, you won’t be able to be a godly keeper at home.

Lori is right. My church was right.

Even though I went to a hard-right fundamentalist Christian college, I still encountered independent women who had careers. Many of my instructors were women– a few were even unmarried women who lived on their own! I met other women students who wanted a career and had no intention of ever having kids. I read books. I debated classmates. I learned to formulate my own opinions and argue for what I believed in (even if I would later abandon all those arguments). I went to PCC intending to get a music degree so I could teach from home and still be a godly wife. By the time I graduated I was going to graduate school so I could move to New York and become an editor for Tor Books with no spouse-type prospects in sight.

Now I’m getting a tattoo this Christmas, had sex with my partner before we got married, and best of all, I tell him what to think about the Bible thanks to the fancy seminary degree I’ll be getting this spring. I’m all of Lori’s worst fears made flesh: ex-fundamentalist, ex-Stay-at-Home-Daughter, ex-complementarian, ex-homeschool; now pro-choice, queer, and feminist.

And I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting against every Lori Alexander I meet.

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Feminism

Redeeming Love: the abuser wins

Plot summary:

  • Angel is “born again.”
  • Opens the House of Magdelena, begins educating former prostitutes and teaching them job skills
  • After three years, Miriam convinces Paul to go look for Angel
  • He finds her, tells her he married Miriam and Michael is still waiting for her
  • She decides to abandon her non-profit and go back to farming with Michael
  • Reunites with Michael by walking to him while stripping naked to “humiliate” herself before him
  • Epilogue: they have four children, she goes back to the House for visits, they die happy

***

I started this review series of Redeeming Love two years ago, and now we’re finally at the end. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, and I’m happy that I’ve made it all the way through this book and created a resource that exposes all the damage, harm, and abuse this book could perpetuate. Here at the end, Francine becomes about as subtle as a sledgehammer with her themes.

In the last few chapters, she foregrounds the contrast between Michael and Paul. They were set up as foils in the first half of the book, and Francine reminds us of their differences in the last pages. In a confrontation with Miriam, he shouts at her and says some spiteful, thoughtless things—and concludes their fight by “storming out” (425). We’re supposed to compare this sort of behavior with Michael, who is supposedly level-headed and reasonable as opposed to Paul, who shouts and gets mean when he’s upset.

This is troubling, because this perpetuates a belief about relationship dynamics that keeps victims locked in their abuser’s grasp: abusive behavior is always loud and obvious. It’s shouting matches and slammed doors. If a person is patient, calm, and reasonable even while he is kidnapping and sexually assaulting you, then how can it really be abuse? In reality, though, abusers are careful, measured, and thoughtful. Abuse is not an anger problem, it doesn’t happen when people like Paul get upset and fly off the handle. Abuse is about careful application, thoroughness, and patience. It usually looks like Michael’s calm, not Paul’s rage. Even if they are screaming and throwing things, it was carefully considered decision to do so.

Another significant theme comes straight from evangelical theology, and we see it most obviously in two places:

Oh, Lord, why was I so blind? Why couldn’t I hear? Why did it take so much pain for me to see that you have been there reaching out to me all along? (427)

Had his own faith and conviction been so weak she couldn’t see it? Had the cruelty she suffered and her own powerlessness against it taught her nothing? Did she still think she had control of her life? (433)

The theological principle here is that God will use any means necessary in order to draw his wayward children to him—both saved and unsaved. He is “relentless” in his pursuit of our souls. To put it bluntly: God will use pain and suffering, if necessary, to teach us that he in fact controls everything and that our only option is to turn to him for salvation.

This is what abusers teach their victims. They will use pain – beatings, verbal battering, rape—in order to demonstrate that they hold all the power, all the control. The victim does not get to make decisions about what they want to do – like own a small cabin and keep a garden, for example. Francine is blunt about it, too. During Angel’s conversion scene, we get this:

And do you signify your life to Jesus now before these witnesses? If so, would you signify by saying ‘I do’?”

Words meant for a wedding ceremony. A sad smile touched her lips. With Michael she had said “Why not” rather than “I do”; she had come to the end of her endurance and felt she had no choice. She felt that now. She had come to the end of her struggles, the end of her fight to survive on her own. She needed God. (428)

Holy shit.

Just a reminder: at the start of this whole mess, she decided to provoke the bouncer into beating her to death, is delirious when Michael shows up, and he kidnaps her. He takes her out to a remote area and every time she tries to leave he physically drags her back while she is kicking and screaming and throwing herself out of a moving wagon. And Francine draws a clear parallel to Michael kidnapping her and Angel’s conversion experience. Life was like Magowan’s beating, the tool God needed to make her vulnerable enough to kidnap into salvation.

Again … holy shit. Every once in a while, I think “maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe I should give Francine the benefit of the doubt here, maybe this is just a really uncharitable reading of the text” and then she goes and spouts nonsense like this.

The last theme that Francine wants to remind us all of before she ends the book is that Francine was culpable for her own exploitation and abuse, that she was partly responsible for a significant part of her suffering. On remaking herself, she chooses demure dresses in drab colors—a contrast to the “temptation” that satin gowns presented to her when she’d been kidnapped by Duke. During her conversation with Paul, they talk about the night Paul “assists” an escape attempt from Michael and he insisted she “pay” him:

“I could’ve said no.”

“Did you know that then?”

She didn’t speak for a moment. “Some part of me must have known. Maybe I just didn’t want to. Maybe it was my way to draw your blood. I don’t know anymore.” (449)

I’m flabbergasted. She had been kidnapped by a stranger, a man who won’t even use her name, who won’t let her leave, who actually wanted to murder her, and the only person who can get her out of there decides to demand she “pay” him in sex … and she “could’ve said no.” In the rest of her musings on this, Angel sees the “repercussions” from her “choice” as a “stone lying cold and hard in the silent pool” making the people around her broken, “desperate” and “ruptured.”

What’s particularly infuriating about this passage is that Francine knows that people like me exist. She knows that a woman like myself would read the section and argue that “saying no” was not a legitimate option. Francine wants to proof her book against this criticism, so she tells the reader that Angel is to blame for having sex with Paul, and to blame for all the “disruption” that “choice” caused between Paul and Michael.

This section damns Redeeming Love in a way few other passages do. Francine, as the author, is aware enough to hang a lantern on that night and what it means. She wants us to know that she considers abused, vulnerable, exploited woman to be just as guilty as the monsters who exploit them.

***

Redeeming Love is the story of an abuser who kidnaps an unconscious woman, barely restrains himself from murdering her, and gets what he wants in the end: a victim returning like a prodigal wife to kneel down, sobbing, at his feet begging forgiveness for wanting to be free of him.

According to Francine, writing this was a “form of worship” and everything in Redeeming Love was a “gift from the Lord” (467).

I hope her god never gives anyone another “gift” like this.

 

p.s. why did she have to go back to farming in the middle of nowhere, why couldn’t Michael have moved to San Francisco and helped her run her non-profit oh wait because women can’t be independent that’s from Satan

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: moral relativity

Content note: child sexual assault, discussions of sexual violence

Plot summary:

  • Angel arrives in San Francisco, gets a job as a cook
  • The café burns down and Duke finds her
  • Duke threatens Angel’s employer to coerce her, imprisons her in his gambling hall
  • He wants her to be his madam but she’ll have to be raped for a week first
  • When he introduces her to his customers, they tell her to sing—she sings “Rock of Ages”
  • A rich, Christian banker wanders in and rescues her
  • She confronts Duke and gets the keys to the rooms of children he’s been raping
  • They leave with the child sexual assault victims, go to the banker’s house
  • Miriam and Paul get married, God talks to Michael some more

***

This section of the book made me so angry and frustrated that I cried. There’s been a lot about Redeeming Love that is absolutely rage-inducing—most notably that Michael is a textbook abuser who kidnaps a woman, assaults her, and threatens to murder her but he’s the “good guy”—but this section took the cake. We’re nearing the end with only one more section to go after this, and Francine’s narrative is starting to force the reader to some conclusions.

I’m angry because of the conclusions that these chapters draw about the nature of God.

I didn’t talk about this too much last week because I knew these chapters were coming, but a point that Francine made crystal clear to her audience is that this time Angel is running away because God wants her to. On every previous escape attempt, Angel leaving Michael was framed as her sinful longing for independence; this time God wants her to go and it’s Satan’s voice that tries to persuade her to stay. During a brief interlude with Michael while he’s furiously chopping wood, God tells him that Angel has made Michael her idol, and worships her abuser-kidnapper-husband instead of God so God had to send her away—to “teach her a lesson” is implied (383).

Angel arrives in San Francisco with no clue how she’s going to make a living and stumbles—on God’s verbal direction (377)—into a restaurant that is clearly struggling because the former cook … was not nice. She offers to cook for the owner, and Francine tells us that this is exactly where God wants her to be. Angel is doing exactly what God wants, and he provided her with this employment opportunity right when she was at her wit’s end and wondering how she was going to get any food that evening.

He didn’t give her this idea before this moment. Even when he tells her to go into the restaurant he doesn’t explain why, but she’s beyond exhausted and doesn’t question the prompting. God waited until Angel was quite literally wandering around the streets of San Francisco, exhausted and hungry, before he decided to intervene and help her.

This is a common torture method: deny your victim sleep or food and then prey on them when they’re at their most vulnerable. This is what God is doing to Angel. He’s torturing her into doing what he wants.

It also didn’t escape my notice that she got this job because of skills that Michael forcer her to have when he kidnapped her, and the Altmans helped develop. Angel would be an incredible saleswoman, for example—she’s written as being incredibly perceptive, finds people easy to read, and is naturally charming. We saw how good she was at this during a previous escape attempt, when she found a job at a mercantile. But oh, no—this time the job she gets is a job her abuser equipped her to have, and an explicitly domestic one at that.

That isn’t the end of the torture Francine’s God-character employs. It gets worse.

After the fire, Duke—the man who raped her for her entire childhood—discovers her and coerces her into going with him by threatening her employer. Once they’re in Duke’s gambling hall, he imprisons her so Angel is essentially kidnapped again. Ironically, there’s actually no text-based evidence for why Duke’s assault and kidnapping are wrong but when Michael kidnaps and assaults her it’s fine and good and wonderful. The only difference?

God told Michael to kidnap her.

I guess I’m not surprised that this is the justification an evangelical Christian uses. That is how their ethical system works: sin is wrong because God said so and if God tells you to do something then it’s fine. The fact that Duke and Michael take the exact same actions doesn’t even merit a discussion. And evangelicals complain that “post-modernism” has allowed secular ethics to be “relative.” In Francine’s book, literally, it’s A-OK to kidnap someone as long as God told you to.

We’re getting to the climax of Francine’s character arc, if not the plot. She’s accepted the role Michael forced her into—she’s a good cook now, she finally adopts his name and goes by Mrs. Hosea—and now she has to face temptation in order to commit to God’s plan for her life.

This temptation comes from Duke. The man who abused and raped her, who murdered anyone who helped her. In Redeeming Love, Angel is in San Francisco because God told her to be there. She works at the café because God told her to. The café that is across the street from Duke’s gambling hall (388). No other café in San Francisco would do, it had to be the one that would guarantee that Duke would find her again. This is despicable. Monstrous. If I knew God had put me in a position where my abuser and rapist could find me and hurt me again? I’d figure out a way to get a god-killing bullet and then shoot him with it.

While Duke has her imprisoned, her gives her a warm bath and nice clothes and nice bedding and good food. She hasn’t eaten all day because of the fire, and Duke gives her steak and chocolate cake. When she eats it—because why wouldn’t she?—this is her reaction, which the text indicates is the “right” one:

I’m so weak! Look at me! Stuffing myself on Duke’s food. I’m selling my soul for a steak and a slice of chocolate cake when I swore I’d starve before I went back to my old ways. I don’t know how to be good! (394)

This is when I started crying.

Francine writes Angel as being tempted by Duke. The child rapist. She puts Angel back into a rapist’s clutches, and then sets up this situation as being tempting to Angel. I can’t even put into words how sickening this is. She gives food to her hungry, exhausted character and eating it is bad? What is she even trying to accomplish with this scene? I’m so angry and hurt and utterly mystified that this book is still a leading best-seller in Christian fiction.

Unfortunately, there’s more, and it gets ugly. Angel reveals everything that’s happened to her since she left New York—when she tells Duke about Michael, the narrative framing she uses is Michael’s, not hers. Every time she ran away from her kidnapper? That night when he threatened to murder her and physically dragged her kicking and screaming onto his wagon and back to the farm? This is how she recalls it:

He came and got me out. He fought our way out. And he took me home again. He forgave me. (396).

This is the abuser’s revisionist narrative. Michael’s gaslighting of Angel worked.

I didn’t know it was possible to be even more disappointed by Redeeming Love, but I am.

The climactic scene comes when Duke parades her in front of the crowd he’s going to have rape her. When Angel comes out on stage, though, she feels sorry for all these men and then remembers a hymn Michael taught her—“Rock of Ages.” She sings it, and in the most hackneyed, stereotypical, trope I’ve ever seen in Christian fiction she brings all the would-be rapists back to themselves with her purity, innocence, and righteousness. Her goodness makes them all feel sheepish and embarrassed, but it’s Duke’s reaction that is … it would be hilarious if I weren’t so angry with Francine. He’s afraid because Angel sang a hymn. She’s able to rip his shirt open and remove the keys from a chain around his neck because her hymn-singing righteousness has apparently made him as effective as a lamp.

The message Francine is driving home is how relentless, unfeeling, cruel, dictatorial, and unbelievably petty God is.

Francince’s God wants Angel to be happy, but only as long as she worships him and puts him first. In order to ensure that she does this, he’s going to make her feel like a worthless person who can’t make her husband happy by giving him lots of babies. Then he’s doing to almost let her starve before offering her help– but that help is going to put her right back into the clutches of the man who raped her over and over again. He’ll take her to the brink of being raped for an entire week straight so that she learns to pray and trust and believe in God. He’s going to drag her to a rock bottom of constant, unending rape and listening to children being raped so that she has no choice but to beg him to rescue her.

This is a goddamn protection racket. Believe in me, worship me, or I’ll force you out of your happy marriage and let you be raped? What the fuck is this?

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: A Year in the Life

A little while ago my good friend and colleague Libby Anne linked to my Redeeming Love review series and that was just the kick in the pants I needed to get back on the Book Reviewing Horse so here we are.

Plot Summary:

  • Elizabeth Altman is pregnant
  • She asks Angel to help her deliver the baby
  • Angel decides Michael needs a wife that can have babies
  • She leaves for San Francisco, tells Miriam to make Michael happy

The chapters take place over the course of almost a year—this plotline starts in late spring with Angel deciding to leave by early in the next spring. I’m pretty sure that it takes place over this time period so that Francine can get hamfisted with the planting and harvest imagery, as well as with Nativity references for the events around Christmas. I don’t think anyone’s ever accused her of being a subtle writer.

***

At this point, we are starting to see some significant changes in Angel’s character. Since this is a character-driven book, I’d expect to see these types of things happening at the closing of the second act, which is about where we are. What’s frustrating to me is that the changes are completely uninteresting, and the reason why they’re uninteresting is that Francine is bound by evangelical theologies about morality and gender.

In the beginning, Angel is “bad” because she is bitter and independent, and these are the qualities that need to be changed to make her a “good” character. By chapter 25, Angel is losing her bitterness and independence, and becoming the “Silently Suffering Saint” archetype. I recognized it immediately in this line:

Angel refused to defend herself against Paul. What was the point? She was polite. She was silent. (335)

and this one:

If Paul called her a harlot to her face, she would take it and say nothing. (363)

because as a budding teenager writer I wrote this character over and over again. All my heroines were the Silently Suffering Saint, champions of Inner Resolve and knights of the Moral High Ground, where good women endure endless harms and abuses with Quiet Steadfastness. I was not that person—not even a little bit—but oh how I longed to be. The only time I’ve ever come the close into fitting this mold was in an abusive relationship. I was convinced my abuser was shaping me into the godly woman I could never attain on my own, a woman who takes the hits and “says nothing.”

Later, after I had finally escaped from that abuse, multiple people in my life told me that I would know I was “recovering” from the abuse when I stopped talking about it. This is the pattern we’re seeing in Angel’s character—her goodness is directly related to how much she can shut up and let a man get away with being vicious and cruel to her. We know this is the “right” track for Angel to follow, since we get “he would respect her silence” from Michael a few pages into the chapter (339).

These types of character arcs are just incredibly boring. An Angel that reforms while still retaining her wit, her fire, could be interesting—at the very least, entertaining. Instead, we get the same insipid Martyr character that high-handed morality plays have been trying to sell us on for centuries.

***

Angel also starts literally hearing the voice of God: a still, small, and yet audible voice that is being hopelessly cryptic. He says to “Come forth, beloved” and when Angel understandably goes “huh?” she gets nothing (336). At one point, a “sweet fragrance filled the darkened cabin” and a voice “fills the room” and says “I am.” She tries to talk back, but “no answer came. No voice filled the stillness” (345). When harvest comes and she’s shucking corn, God tells her “You have to die to be reborn.” Again, Angel’s response is “huh?” but receives nothing more from God (357-58).

We know from the times that Angel listens to Michael talk and read the Bible that all the religious lingo is utterly foreign to her and she can’t make heads or tails of it. She’s having the same reaction to the stuff God is literally saying to her, personally, as when Michael reads the Bible.

This framing of God is consistent with what I got in conservative Christian theology. I was taught that I needed to memorize as much Scripture as I possibly could, because we need to give the Holy Spirit the power to communicate with us, and that comes from having the Word of God “written on the table of our hearts.” If we have Scripture memorized, then anytime we think of a verse we’ve memorized, that’s the Holy Spirit trying to tell us something. Apparently, God is like Mrs. Who from A Wrinkle in Time except unlike her, he can only use biblical allusions instead of the universe’s entire library.

There’s also the concept that only born-again Christians are capable of understanding Scripture. I was taught that the Bible would appear “foolish” to all non-Christians who tried to read it, and that this was why non-believers think the Bible can be criticized and mocked. They don’t have the Holy Spirit guiding them to a true understanding of what the Bible says. Angel can’t understand God because she’s not “open” to receiving his words.

The end result of all this theology ending up in Redeeming Love is that God looks petty and ridiculous.

***

The primary conflict of this section is that Angel is barren while her neighbor is pregnant, and this is a constant reminder that she will never be able to “give” Michael children and a family of his own. At one point before the baby is born, Miriam tells Angel “[Childbirth] is a woman’s reason for being, isn’t it? Our divine privilege: to bring new life into the world and nurture it” (355).

This sort of statement popping up here makes me suspicious that Christians write an overwhelming amount of historical fiction so that they can get away with forcing their ideology into everything. A teenage girl saying something like in a contemporary setting would be ludicrous, or invoke the assumption that the character is probably cloyingly Old Fashioned. But in a book set during the California Gold Rush, this would be a perfectly ordinary thing to say! (supposedly.)

Point being: this is not just present in Redeeming Love for historical color—it’s there because this is something the author agrees with. Pregnancy and childbirth, according to Francine, is the single purpose God intends a woman to serve. Francine could have chosen a more compassionate path, one that could have brought a lot of comfort and possible healing to women who struggle with both infertility and the constant cultural demand that they incubate offspring or they’re useless. She could have left Angel childless and depicted a happy ending with Angel and Michael that showed that Christians can still be happy even if they aren’t living out the Nuclear Family ideal.

Instead, by the end, Angel is not actually barren. Or she was barren, but God miraculously cures her and she has babies with Michael. She’s given the “divine privilege” of childbirth—which, if this section is to be believed, can happen with a minimal amount of fuss. In fact, if you’re a Good Enough Christian, you can keep sitting in front of the fire, mending your husband’s shirts, until moments before the baby is born! In fact, contractions and labor can be experienced in total silence (there’s that Silent theme again, huh) so that your other kids don’t even know something might be going on with mom!

Everything about this section is eyeroll inducing.

Feminism

what white women can learn from Zeresh

I think I might have mentioned more than once that I enjoyed my “Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist, and Queer Readings of the Bible” class last semester. One of the themes that really hit home for me about womanist interpretation is what it asks of me, as a white woman. I can’t use womanism as an interpretive lens, but I can look at a passage or story and ask myself what about the villain or oppressor (or oppressiveness) do I have in common, because of my whiteness?

The story we used in class was of Sarah and Hagar, and we read multiple interpretations–feminist, womanist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim–about the time when Sarah goes to Abraham and has Hagar driven out. It was an amazing conversation, and I’ll never forget what one of my professors, Alika Galloway, highlighted: Sarah and Hagar could have bonded, could have been united, could have loved each other as sisters. They could have raised their sons together, and leaned on each other to survive. Instead, Sarah oppressed and exploited Hagar at every turn, and when Hagar threatened her power and authority in the camp, had her banished into the desert to die. White women, Alika said, are like Sarah in that passage.

Abraham had essentially sex trafficked Sarah to the Pharaoh of Egypt just a few chapters earlier. White women are oppressed by sexism and misogyny, and experience the same sort of violence from our partners that Abraham did to Sarah. But, instead of truly turning to other women who share those experiences, we often choose to survive this patriarchal system by exploiting white supremacy to grasp whatever power we can.

As we discussed this in class, the first character from the Bible that came to my mind was Zeresh. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t be embarrassed– basically no one I’ve talked to about her since then knows who she is. She’s Haman’s wife from Esther, and I know of her because of an animated Bible story I had as a child that featured her as a character. In that video she’s given more lines than she even has in the Tanakh, so I’ve known my whole life that Haman didn’t come up with the idea to execute Mordecai: his wife did.

Ever since last semester I’ve been thinking about what white women can learn from Zeresh, and I wrote an article about it for Sojourners. You can read it here, and I hope you do.

Feminism

the complicated misery of #metoo

I became aware of the #metoo movement on October 15 last year. The next day, I did something I had never done before: on facebook, to my friends, I named the men who had assaulted my body and were the reason why I could say “me, too”– I named the places where it happened, the churches where these men still serve. I pointed to the men who are responsible for the damage I have to live with, and to the power structures that still prop them up. In a way, it was liberating. I’ve carried their names inside of me for years, and every time I would describe the assaults, my soul raged at the idea that I was talking about what they had done to me while ceaselessly protecting them. It was an exhausting burden to carry, and it was a relief to finally watch it tumble away from me.

Not everything about the #metoo movement has been that liberating or relieving, however. While it was good to finally see some consequences for some people, as I watched basically every woman I’m connected to say “me, too” I braced myself for the inevitable retaliations. The response to Al Franken’s callous humiliation of a co-worker was unsurprising, but still infuriating. I could practically see the shoe dropping, though, when I read Grace’s story about her sickening evening with Aziz Ansari. I knew we were about to see a flood of articles titled “has #metoo gone too far?”

I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw a friend defend what he’d done, saying “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best” and arguing that Grace was at fault for going back to his apartment in the first place. This man was also a survivor of sexual assault. I’d trusted him, assumed he was safe. It was a bitter revelation to discover he wasn’t.

The miserable reality of #metoo is that when women talk about all the assaults and humiliations we endure, we’re not often talking about reportable, criminal offenses. One of the first men I met in the county where I live assaulted me—he grabbed my ass and tried to get his fingers up my shorts to touch my genitals. I fought him off me and yelled at him, only to be berated by his peers for being mean to him. Nothing he did that night was illegal in the state we were in.

When I say “me, too” I’m usually not thinking about the rapes I ultimately reported to the police. I said no, I fought back, and nothing I did mattered. Those experiences haunt me, but I’ve been able to process them, and heal from them.

What crushes me nearly every day is the countless Other Times he assaulted me. The Other Times that I can barely stand to think about. The Other Times that cause my traumatized brain to whisper horrible, frightening lies.

***

Handsome and I have been married for five years, together for six. Our love life just seems to keep getting better, too—although it does look significantly different from the beginning. It’s still thrilling and passionate, but it’s also … comfortable. There have been plenty of times when I’ve initiated sex—or he has—where neither of us are feeling totally ga-ga gangbusters awooooogah. Sometimes that still happens, but what’s more common is one of us gets horny and the other says “yeah, sure, I’m down for that” and gladly responds to encouragement, even if we didn’t start out “in the mood.” If we ever have children, that situation is likely to become even more our normal. I’m sure many people in long-term relationships are nodding their heads in understanding.

However, the trauma that’s left scars deep in my mind and my soul can be vicious. At the oddest times, it’s like I can hear an actual whisper: how is what you do with Handsome really any different from what you say were assaults? If you broke up with Handsome, would you accuse him of assaulting you, too?

I know those are lies. I know it. I know that the difference between what that abuser did to me and the sex I have with my partner are like the contrast between night and day, or black and white. Those experience cannot be compared. They have nothing in common.

When I hear a respected friend say something like “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best,” though, I want to curl up and die. Something at the bottom of my sternum shatters and then shrivels into dust because I suddenly know what he thinks of me. I know that if I were to put out a video recording of all those assaults, people like my friend would say I deserved it. I should have communicated better. I should have left. Those weren’t really assaults, he was just a lousy lover.

***

Most of the horror I endured in that abusive relationship were the Other Times, and they usually went something like this:

The abuser picks me up from the airport, or drives me to a friend’s house. I’m delighted to see him, because we live in different states and usually only see each other at college. On the drive, he’ll pull over somewhere and want to kiss me. At first, I’m thrilled. He’s not the best kisser in the world, but I’m just so happy that I love him and he loves me, and isn’t that what people who love each other do? So I kiss him. Maybe I play with his hair, or touch his shoulders.

He grabs my hand and puts it over his zipper. I pull my hand away from his, but he’ll get insistent. Over time, this is the moment when I learn to be afraid. I start the oh-so-careful dance of trying to stop this without getting hurt … but I am rarely, if ever, successful. He pushes my hand back to his zipper, and encourage me to undo it. I’ll resist, at first, and make mumbling negative noises, but he keeps my motionless hand trapped there while he thrusts into it. I’ll draw my body away from him, stop kissing him, and suggest we keep driving home, or to his friend’s house. He’ll ignore me.

He starts touching me above my clothes, then under them. I’ll shrink away, over and over, putting his hands back on top of my clothes or making distressed sounds. He’ll never stop. Eventually, his hands will be inside my underwear and he’ll be pawing at my genitals, kissing my lips, my neck, saying he just wants to make me feel good. I’ll try to dissuade him, to say that I know and I love him and I’ll lie and say he does make me feel good – I know what happens when I don’t try to soothe his ego when I refuse him, and it’s painful—but say we should keep driving, we’ll be late, his parents will notice we were gone too long. He doesn’t stop.

He shoves his fingers inside and it hurts so bad and sometimes I whimper, but it never matters. I learn that the fastest way to end all this is to fake an orgasm—if I don’t, he’ll just keep pumping until I’m raw and he’s yelling at me for being frigid. Sometimes at that point he’ll grab my head and force it into his lap and I’ll blow him because what is even the point of resisting, of saying no, when it never matters? The handful of times I’ve tried to be forceful … end badly. Eventually, I always quit fighting. I give up. I’ll just … lay there, or sit there. Grit my teeth and get through it. Sometimes, I’m even able to fake being engaged, sometimes I don’t even put up that little bit of resistance because everything else is just so much easier if I don’t try to fight him. It goes faster, it’s over faster; he’ll even be happy and content for a while and won’t call me a goddamn fucking bitch for making everything so difficult.

***

People are going to read me describing all that and agree with my friend. How dare I call this person an abuser, how dare I say these are assaults? If I didn’t want any of that to happen—especially repeatedly—I should’ve broken up with him. Instead of pulling away from him over and over, of repositioning his hands, instead of saying “maybe we should stop” or “your parents are going to notice we’re late” or “we should start driving” I should’ve screamed “NO!” and thrown myself out of the car. If he forced my head in his lap and his cock into my mouth, it was “confusing” and “mixed signals” for me to suck it. It’s my job to stop him.

It’s not his job to care. He’s just a lousy lover, after all.

***

I consider what Aziz Ansari and my abuser did assault. Perhaps not prosecutable, but assault. I consider it assault for the simple reason that if my abuser had ever given a shit about me, none of those Other Times could have happened. The Other Times are the result of an abuser who did not care about anyone besides himself. He did not care about making sure I was happy, that I was comfortable, that I was excited and wanted him to touch me. It never mattered to him that I was miserable, that I was obviously not interested. The only thing that mattered was keeping my resisting body in the car with him, and he did whatever was necessary to ensure that happened.

So did Aziz Ansari—he did whatever it took to keep Grace in his apartment, even though she moved away from him, even though she said “I don’t want to hate you” or “maybe on a second date.” It didn’t fucking matter that she was unhappy, and not having an enjoyable, pleasant encounter. As long as she didn’t leave—which she eventually did—he could do whatever he wanted. It was her job to stop it, and not his job to care.

That is the difference between my abuser and Handsome. That is what makes the difference between night and day. Handsome cares about me, about my happiness, about my engagement, about my pleasure. He doesn’t badger me until I give in, doesn’t use coercion to keep me in the same space as him. I matter to him. My happiness is fundamentally important to him.

This is what the #metoo movement needs to change: it’s not about what it should take for a woman to get a man to stop, or what an acceptable amount of resistance is before it crosses a line. It should be about men believing that being decent matters, and women matter, and caring about us matters.

Photo by Cia de Foto
Feminism

Redeeming Love: Assumptions

Before I get into today’s post, I know there’s a lot on our minds. You know my thoughts on gun violence, and it is beyond enraging to me that more people are dead and hundreds more wounded because Republicans can’t be arsed to care about people. What that white man did in Las Vegas was preventable, and the argument that mass shootings — any shootings at all– are the necessary price we must pay for a hobby is despicable. Get informed about gun violence, responsible regulation, and start agitating for policies to make our country safer from white domestic terrorists and abusers. Our thoughts and prayers are useless if we’re not prompted to action.

And now, because we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, the Redeeming Love review continues. As always, be aware that this book is an unending shitshow of abuse and assault.

Plot Summary

  • Angel hitches a ride with a trader to Sacramento.
  • She gets a job with mercantile-owner Joseph, who’d ordered a stove for Michael.
  • He keeps her occupied while he sends word to Michael that she’s there.
  • Michael comes, sexually assaults her.
  • She agrees to go back with him this time.
  • Miriam gets a crush on Paul; Paul feels uncomfortable lusting after a 16-year-old.
  • Both Paul and Angel decide they want Michael to be with Miriam.

***

There’s not a ton of plot movement; honestly, I’ve read a lot of Francine’s writing and I’m confused why this is one of her most popular books. The pacing in this is just … it’s so bad. It’s 450+ pages and honestly I think it could have been easily reduced by a third and we wouldn’t have lost anything. All the agonizing and soul-searching happening in this section is Francine beating a dead horse with Angel’s self-recrimination. She feels ashamed. We get it. However, this is what happens when people take moralizing sermons and try to turn them into books. The point of Redeeming Love isn’t to be a well-written, entertaining story– it’s the theology. Francine really has to drive home to us that we are like Angel, and we need to be convinced of our lowliness, our wretchedness.

In Sacramento, Angel spends half a chapter wandering around looking for employment and walks past a bunch of brothels and saloons, rejecting each as an option. She’s pretty firm about this, too– she knows she can be successful at that, but it’s not what she wants anymore so she keeps walking until she finds Joseph’s store and he offers her a job. However, later in the narrative Francine has Angel remember this day differently. Angel thinks to herself, and says out loud to Michael, that not returning to prostitution was a close thing, and she was indescribably lucky that she found Joseph when she did.

This is another place where Francine’s theological purposes replace good writing. Angel is consistent in her desire to forge a new life for herself away from prostitution, since this has been a common thread in her thoughts since Michael imprisoned her at his farm. However, Francine is re-telling the story of Hosea so she has to have her Gomer character be “enticed” or “tempted” or whatever. Hosea is a framing of Israel’s relationship with idolatry, and Francine has to preserve that framing even when it doesn’t make sense for the characters she’s written.

When Michael shows up, the first thing he does is sexually assault her:

Michael caught hold of her and swung her around. “Oh, yes I do [know why you left]!” He pulled her into his arms. “You left because of this.” He covered her mouth with his. When she tried to push free, he cupped the back of her head. She struggled harder as the betraying warmth stole over her. (305-06).

Hoo, boy. This is the same rape myth that pissed me off in the “Breaker of Chains” Game of Thrones debacle. It’s the myth that women don’t know what we want– if we resist, if we say no, we don’t really mean it. Here, that myth is combined with the prevalent idea that women are supposed to find sexual violence arousing. Angel is being attacked by a man she was actively backing away from — tripping over tables and boots– but when he assaults her she feels a “betraying warmth.” How many times have we seen this exact scene in other books, in TV, in movies? A woman backing away from a manly man who mans very manly-like until her back hits a wall and he’s suddenly there with his manliness and oh swoon.

Confusingly, Angel’s reaction to this whole confrontation again makes sense as an abuse victim. She begins “shaking violently” as he tries to get her things together to leave. Every other description of her emotional state and actions fits right in to what I feel when I’m trying to function through panic attack. Once again, though, Francine is going to ignore that she’s writing a textbook abusive relationship. In this scene, Angel accuses Michael of feeling a “sense of power” and he admits it, but then says “But it’s not a power I’m going to use against you.” Right. Like you didn’t just use your physical power one page ago to sexually assault the woman you have manipulated and kidnapped repeatedly.

Goddess above this is awful.

***

Speaking of manipulation, there’s two incidents I’d like to address although they’re separate from the Angel-and-Michael main plot. The first is Joseph’s behavior in Sacramento. He gives Angel a place to stay and a job, and Angel starts to feel a small sense of redemption and self-respect. She’s doing what she’s always wanted, even if it doesn’t quite look the way she expected. After a couple of weeks, she’s feeling more confident and ready to move on to something more permanent. The second she mentions anything to Joseph, though, he spends the entire day being very strange and confusing. He lies and says his wife suffered a back injury so he needs Angel to stay, and then keeps changing his mind and creating work. At the end of the chapter, Francine reveals those were all delaying tactics so that Angel would still be at the store when Michael shows up.

This is hella manipulative. He outright lies to her and keeps her occupied with busy work all day– work that’s the equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again– all so that Michael can find her. In fact, he wasn’t just waiting for Michael to show up for the stove, he’d written to Michael and told him Angel was there. But of course Joseph knew better than Angel on what was good for her, so it’s alright.

This happens again with the Altman children back at the farm. Miriam lies to Angel that Ruthie is stuck twenty feet up in a tree and convinces Angel to climb it and rescue her. She’s never climbed a tree before, but she overcomes her fear anyway because she cares about Ruthie and doesn’t want her to get hurt– or, since she’s twenty feet up, possibly die. Once she gets up there, though, she realizes that Ruthie has a rope tied around her and is perfectly safe. She’s understandably upset that she was manipulated, but it’s all in fun and Miriam just somehow knew that Angel needed to climb a tree for some reason, so it’s ok. This is good-natured and loving and adorable and ends with Michael tying up another rope in the tree and making a swing that everyone plays on.

I’m not surprised that Francine has written “friendships” that work this way. Deceitfulness and manipulation are commonplace in conservative evangelical social circles, and it’s acceptable for people to behave like this as long as you’re well-intentioned. The idea that other people know better than you is just par for the course when friendship itself is predicated on the idea that being a friend means being a “iron that sharpeneth iron” or inflicting “faithful wounds” on each other.

Redeeming Love doesn’t have a single example of love, friendship, romance, or healthy relationships anywhere in it. Every relationship is manipulative and passive-aggressive at best, toxic at worst; yet, these toxic relationships are being held up as godly, loving examples.

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.