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the trauma tentacle monster

A few months after I started blogging, a friend of mine came to visit. As we drove back to my house from the airport, one of the things we discussed was my recent writing habit and she expressed some uneasiness about its content and tone. She cautioned me against being too angry, too bitter, too critical, too ungracious. It was a criticism I was already growing inured to since I got a comment arguing essentially the same thing every other day, it felt like. But, this was my friend, so I tried to keep the defensiveness to a minimum. I told her I understood, but my anger was healthy and the criticisms I was making were necessary– especially because, often, those criticisms were not intended to be received well by who I was criticizing, but to validate those they had harmed.

At the end of the year, my father recognized a portion of an anonymous interview I’d given to the BBC about Michael and Debi Pearl’s books and their abusive teachings. He called me, understandably wounded and upset. “When are you going to stop?” he asked me, referring to my decision to air our dirty laundry on the internet. “Never!” I shouted, nearly screamed, at him. “Not as long as there is a single child still being abused the way I was!” It was the worst fight we ever had, and we didn’t speak for nearly a year (he has since demonstrated a real and lasting repentance, and I am very grateful and happy with my relationship with him now).

Sometime in the next year, I wrote in a Facebook comment somewhere about the way C-PTSD has irrevocably changed my life, changed my brain, changed everything; another trauma survivor told me how I was wrong, how the wounds eventually heal and the scars fade, and admonished me not to reject a path toward healing and wholeness. I was offended, and told her so. To me, it smacked of what I’d been told all my life: you can– and must– choose joy, bitterness is a poison that hurts only yourself, forgiveness is the only way to be happy … what she said felt like the secular wooey-woo version of the fundamentalist mandate to “let not the sun set upon your wrath.”

This summer has also been difficult for a lot of different reasons, and at one point both Handsome and one of my closest friends tried to reassure me that the things I was going through wouldn’t last forever, promising me they will eventually get better. But, again, it just sounded like one of my fundamentalist pastors encouraging his congregation to ignore their emotional interior because “this, too, shall pass.” Their reassurance, to me in that moment, was upsetting. It felt invalidating instead of helpful.

***

Last night I had a migraine, which means I needed to stay away from backlit screens so I decided to read Sense and Sensibility aloud in lieu of watching Elementary with my partner, and when I got to this passage, I laughed because I felt a twinge of oof, same:

The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.

I have been mulling over this problem for almost a year now– have started and stopped half a dozen posts about it. It’s thorny, and tricky, and all I can do is hope what I’m trying to say here will be received in the same spirit I’m offering it. I shared the anecdotes above to illustrate what I’m examining is not something I’ve noticed solely “out there” in other people, but primarily in myself, as recently as last month.

When trauma survivors first exit fundamentalism/evangelicalism, one of the most crucial first steps we must take is leaning into our emotions– all our emotions, especially the “negative” ones that we were usually completely cut off from. After a lifetime spent in an authoritarian environment that controlled our emotional lives by telling us feeling anything besides joy is sinful, we need our anger and rage as much as we need air to breathe and food to eat. It’s necessary for our survival. There’s a reason why one of the adjectives in my Twitter bio is “bitter” and I’m never taking it out. “Bitter” is no longer an accusatory insult, but claimed and redeemed as a meaningful part of my recovery.

However, I have noticed a pattern in myself and my communities for a long time and am becoming increasingly troubled by it (important to note this isn’t limited to post-authoritarian-religion spaces, I’ve also experienced similar patterns in disability and mental health spaces, too). As we gather together online and in the meatspace, we can find an incredible amount of validation and support among other survivors. In an effort to make those spaces as safe and welcoming as possible, members are encouraged either explicitly by moderators and rules or implicitly by group norms to respect, and not dismiss, another’s sharing of their experience and pain. This is important, and makes it possible for people to see themselves reflected in other’s stories and understand, maybe for the first time, they’re not alone. I will never undercut the power this holds: for me, I’ve always expressed it as feeling the “scales fall away from my eyes,” that’s how transformative it was.

But, I am growing convinced that sometimes what starts as validation can become retraumatizing. I think it’s possible for the support and encouragement to finally acknowledge all the hurt and pain to become conflated with barring the illumination of a path toward equilibrium, integration, and healing. Obviously, I understand why this happens. When I hear “it gets better, here’s how” in the throws of my suffering and consequently reject it, I am operating from a similar place as Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne: “resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.” Add a heaping side-dish of a lifetime of being guilted and shamed for my emotions, and “giving them up” in any way feels like ceding my abusers emotional manipulation and control. In the heat of the moment, I think it can genuinely be difficult to suss out the difference between my friend telling me I was being too critical of fundamentalist churches and my partner trying to reassure me.

Another aspect of this is what my therapist and I have termed the “trauma tentacle monster.” I went several years without processing any of my trauma, burying it as deep as I possibly could and almost vindictively squashing down any sign of it coming to the surface. Because of that, the trauma tentacle monster grew. It fed on those memories I kept in the dark and slowly creeped and oozed its way into every single part of my life until it was utterly impossible to escape it. Things that, at first, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my trauma became connected to it, became a trigger. Once the connection was made, getting the tentacle cut off and unstuck took serious effort and time.

I’m not a licensed therapist so take this with the necessary grain of salt, but: I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I’m the only person in the world with a trauma tentacle monster living in my head, and I’ve seen signs of them lurking under the surface in friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and occasionally rearing their head. Sometimes those trauma tentacle monsters lash out at the people around it.

I am coming to believe that spaces built for trauma survivors can, completely unintentionally, feed the tentacle monster and allow it to grow. It’s possible for the monster to even thrive in those environments, for it to exploit the steady stream of validation and connections (as well as for harmful individuals in those communities to capitalize on the existence of all our hidden monsters, to weaponize them against each other).

What I’m not at all sure about is what to do about any of this. We need our communities. We need our safe havens. We need the validation, the support, the ability to bravely share our stories. I believe those things are essential … but we also need healing, and to know that healing is possible. The trauma tentacle monster can be fought, can be beaten.

Really … we all just need therapy. A lot of therapy.

Photography by Quinn Dombrowski
Social Issues

choose you this day whom you will serve

A few weeks ago I participated in a direct action intended to disrupt the business and daily activity at the national headquarters for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The march was organized by Movimiento Cosecha and the #NeverAgainAction movement that has been protesting at detention centers operated by ICE or its contractors. I told a few people beforehand that I was going to be there, and some asked me a variation on the question “are you planning to be arrested?” My answer was always “no, I am not planning on being arrested.” I would then usually comment “the police have a choice. They could think y’know, they’re right, concentration camps are bad and decide not to arrest anyone.”

While there was some levity in my word choice, I was also telling the truth: it’s never up to me whether or not I’ll be arrested. That’s not my decision to make … and that’s also the point of engaging in a direct action like ours a few weeks ago or the one at Wyatt last week, where a captain chose to drive his truck into a line of peaceful protestors. Kelly Hayes said this better than I ever could:

This moment gives us an opportunity to reflect on what civil disobedience really is. It is not, as many believe, the act of getting arrested in protest. It is a form of direct action in which you are giving authority a moral choice. You have made your moral choice, and they have to make theirs. And you are telling that story in the open, or at the very least, in the context of a public narrative.

Sometimes, you will present authority with that choice and they won’t arrest you. Maybe they think it’s not worth the effort or the media exposure. Maybe you have the numbers. Sometimes they arrest you. Sometimes they show their character. And whatever they do, when it’s your action, their choices happen in the context of the story you are telling. Civil disobedience forces a confrontation between morality and that which would subdue it.

When I read that, as a Christian, of course I immediately remembered two of Jesus’ teachings: “you cannot serve God and mammon” and “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” As I sat in ICE headquarters, singing and chanting with ten other people, I was living out those words. My body sitting in that lobby was boldly declaring You cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot work for ICE, taking their money to enforce their policies, and be a moral person. Every word and lyric that came out of my mouth and echoed against every marble tile was deliberate resistance, carrying the soldier’s pack another mile.

Walter Wink talked a bit in Jesus and Non-Violence: A Third Way about the power of peacefully resisting domination and power:

Jesus directs his followers to go a second mile;

  • that forces the soldier to see that they are using their authority over you and not treating you as an equal
  • that alerts the officer that they are treating you as a lessor
  • that allows them to see that they are abusing their power over you and to consider changing their behavior.

That was Jesus calling his followers and us to point out the abuses others make on us out of their power positions and not out of love. You point out to them where they are abusing you or the situation and you open them to the opportunity to learn and change and grow. That is a loving thing to do and sometimes it’s very hard to do because they accuse you of not loving them because you won’t do for them what you used to do.

Kelly Hayes and Walter Wink are hitting at the same idea, and I especially appreciate Walter pointing out that Jesus’ teaching on radical resistance to power was fundamentally about loving your enemy. After DHS agents had handcuffed us all and dragged us away from the windows and the cameras, they put us in a small room while they called DC metro police; several agents stayed in the room while they waited and we decided to continue what we’d been doing in the lobby: singing. One of the songs we chose was the chorus of “Which Side Are you On?” and as we sang we tried to make eye contact with each of the agents monitoring us. Look at us. See this, see the decision you are making. I knew it was unlikely any of them would intervene, but I hoped. I still hope that occasionally they think about that day and their role in it.

***

My small group–Bible study–book club has been reading through Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, and last night we read a quote from Ken Robinson:

However seductive the machine metaphor may be for industrial production, human organizations are not actually mechanisms and people are not components in them. People have values and feelings, perceptions, opinion, motivations, and biographies, whereas cogs and sprockets do not. An organization is not the physical facilities within which it operates; it is the networks of people in it.

While Brown and Robinson are focusing on creating and sustaining emotionally healthy environments, this morning I connected the above quote with everything I’ve been mulling over since the direct action in DC. The DHS agents, ICE personnel, and metro police who eventually put us in squad cars and then locked us in concrete room without any water or food for twelve hours clearly thought of themselves as cogs and sprockets. My arresting officer even said something to the effect of “why did you have to make us do this?” and I just stared at him– I am not making you do anything, I thought,  and wow I know I’ve used “abuser” as an analogy for structural power for years, but that just really drives the point home, doesn’t it.

They view themselves as just a part of the system, just doing their jobs. It’s not up to them what happens, they’re just “enforcing the law,” they don’t set policy they just enact it … but the reality is that they’re not just wheels grinding away in a machine. They’re people, and they have choices about what they do.

So do we.

Photography by Lindsay Wesson
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: pumpkin spice edition

September is the best month.

In most of the places I’ve lived, September is usually balmy, filled with a chaotic mix of sunshine and thunderstorms. It signals that the long, hot days are over; it makes me remember everything I love about summer while whispering that autumn is winding closer. I’ve always experienced September filled-to-brimming-over with anticipation and this year is no different. I’ve started seeing cocoon cardigans and blanket scarves in my pinterest and tumblr feeds, my birthday is just around the corner, and crisp Friday nights make me want to light a bonfire in my yard and keep candles burning.

For ten years, September has also brought scholarship and learning back into my life after lazy summers, and I’m a little bit sad that this will be my last year in college and I’ll never need to order textbooks or read a syllabus again after I graduate. It makes sense that I’d feel this way in September, which has always been synonymous with change and beginnings– both of which require me to let go and move forward.

This is also my first week back to seminary, so I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been enjoying, mulling over, and carrying with me.

Reading

One of my seminary textbooks this semester is Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, and one of the readings we did this week included excerpts from her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

“There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plain, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives. We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.

When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”

I went and read the rest of the article and … I think this article might be one I reference for the rest of my life. It struck a chord in my soul that makes me ache, wonder, long, and rejoice. It’s been a few days since I’ve read it and every time I read it again, especially the last paragraph I quoted above, I feel … expanded. Reading this feels like Sophia Wisdom brushing my hair back from my face and touching her lips to my forehead. I read this and know something deeply true. I learned, somehow, something I always knew.

***

I’ve been promoting “Cravings” by my friend, Hännah Ettinger, since it went up at Autostraddle in July. I mentioned it in my post about how whiteness absorbed my family’s cultural heritage, but if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet … it’s beautiful and powerful. I just read it again looking for a quote to help draw you in and again I’m moved and crying.

“I’d say, it’s my grandmother’s favorite cake, the one we make for her birthday every year, and tomorrow is her birthday. It’s my mother’s scone recipe, it’s like small sweet cakes. This is cornbread for me to take to Talas City tonight; it’s a volunteer’s birthday and she misses her mom making this for her. These are snickerdoodle cookies, my brother’s secret recipe. He called me last night.

I would not say: I remembered the way my skin felt one night in Zoey’s arms, and I have to touch other things to distract myself from the crackle running up and down my spine. Never: I missed my parents and I cannot talk to them the same way anymore, but I still miss when I believed were all safe together, and when I believed that, I used to eat food just like this. We made this spice cake together, just like this.

***

The last two years have been excruciating as we careen wildly from incident to scandal to catastrophe and back again. As a kid I loved arcade racing games, and like many kids I adopted a form of “steering” that made heavy use of guardrails, bouncing back and forth between one side of the track to the other, and using walls to turn corners. My dad aptly named this youthful style as “bang-bang driving” and I’m reminded of it every time I think of everything we’ve been through since the election. It’s hard to keep track, but there’s one article that’s been really helpful to me in putting everything into a cohesive, coherent timeline and context. “Will Trump be Meeting with his Counterpart– Or his Handler?: A Plausible Theory of Mind-Boggling Collusion” puts a lot of things all in one place, in one narrative. I’m still not sure what I think of Chait’s argument, but it was still eye-opening to see everything together.

***

Chris Stroop is one of the most brilliant and incisive writers I’m aware of, and I respect the hell out of him and his work. He’s incredibly good at demystifying fundamentalism and the pervasive influence it wields in American culture, and I think “Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture” is a good place to start with his work.

“Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority,” as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” – at the same time.”

***

I spent my summer mostly playing video games and reading, and the best of the books I’ve inhaled over the last few months have been: The Hidden Sea Tales by A.M. Dellamonica, The Liveship Traders set by Robin Hobb, and the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness.

Watching

I finally watched Interstellar and it is as good as everyone says it is. If you haven’t see Miss Sloane I highly recommend it– it’s one of the very few movies I’ve actually decided to buy.

Iliza Shlesinger’s Elder Millennial made me literally shriek with laughter, and at this point anyone who hangs out with me has to watch John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City for half of what I say to make any sense. I’m going to join everyone else on the internet in saying Nanette by Hannah Gadsby is a must-see. Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King is equally as incredible as Nanette IMO and I wish it got as much press as hers did. W. Kamua Bell’s Private School Negro was also hilarious and amazing.

… and I watch a lot of standup.

I rarely ever subscribe to YouTube channels, but Natalie Wynn’s ContraPoints is one of the best things on there. Her videos The West,” “Jordan Peterson,” and “Incels” are the sort of YouTube-video-essay-with-costumes-and-set-pieces-that-refute-conservative-arguments that I feel like my blog would’ve been if I could make myself not hate video editing so much.

***

And that’s all I’ve got for now. As always, I’m curious to see what has kept y’all busy this summer. Give me your recommendations! (Also, if you know of any historical romance-ish fantasy-ish bodice rippers that you think I’d enjoy, toss those recommendations my way! I need light and fluffy reading material in between Black Theology and Black Power and Sisters in the Wilderness.)

Photography by Silvia Viñuales
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: The Middle East

I sat down to start working on this week’s World History and Cultures post at 2pm. It is now almost 5– that’s how long it took me to factcheck seventeen pages, not including writing this review.

Inaccuracies:

Wild Assertions:

  • The Enuma Elish was written “in order to exalt Babylon and its chief god, Marduk” (23).
  • Babylonian scientists were “too immersed in the naturalistic superstition of astrology to develop the science of astronomy.”
  • “Without laws and a governmental structure to enforce them, it would be impossible for people to live together peaceably.”
  • “Justice is the use of authority and power to uphold what is right, just, or lawful. It reflects the principle that every man is responsible for his own actions and should be treated accordingly” (24).
  • “Unbelieving critics, including the French infidel Voltaire, ridiculed the Word of God and insisted that no such nation [Hittites] had ever existed.”
  • “The name Assyria became synonymous with terror, cruelty, and oppression among all the peoples of the ancient Middle East” (25). (This is also an inaccuracy, since this “reputation” appears among 20th century scholars and has been discredited.)
  • “…the ruins of Babylon bear testimony to the judgment of God against the pride, idolatry, and immorality of the once proud city” (26).
  • “The Persian Empire prospered for over two centuries, probably because of its tolerant, generally beneficent treatment of God’s people, the Jews” (27).
  • “Although the Persian kings practiced the false, pagan religion of Zoroastrianism, they had a much higher regard for the sanctity of law than did the haughty Assyrian and Babylonian monarchs.”
  • Moses is “one of the greatest men in world history” (28).
  • “Byzantium was increasingly threatened … by the rise of a fanatical, militant new religion in the Arabian Peninsula—Islam” (34).
  • “Muhammed combined elements of a corrupted Judaism and a distorted Christianity in a legalistic religion that looked to him as its ultimate authority” (35).
  • “Because Islam is such a fanatically anti-Christian faith, the progress of modern Protestant missions in the Middle East has been extremely slow and difficult.”
  • Britain took control of Palestine, etc, “in order to prepare these Arab states for independence” (36).
  • “…the Middle East will continue to be a center of international tension and conflict as the world nears history’s last great battle, the Battle of Armageddon” (38).

Assumptions:

  • Not only does the Bible relay accurate historical information, what it relays indicates the significance and superiority of its contents over other cultures, nations, cities, persons, and events.

***

This was my face as I read this chapter:

I knew when I started WHAC that things were bound to get interesting, and I suspected that their chapter on the “Middle East” was going to be … is there a word that combines “hilarious” and “troubling”?

I think the most important point to highlight about chapter three is this: how much time WHAC gives to certain items is indicative of its point of view. I mentioned above that they see the biblical narrative as not just accurate, but as a source for understanding God’s priorities. If God didn’t mention it in the Bible, then it’s not that important– and if he did, well then it must be incredibly important.

We see this in their section on the Hittite Empire: the Bible exalts the Hittites to a fabled, mythic stature. They’re portrayed as allies of Israel (Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, is one of David’s mighty men, and the Empire is the source for many of the building materials for the Temple), and as powerful allies at that. Consequently, Abeka makes a mountain out of their iron forging ability, even though from the research I did indicates it’s likely the Hittites only had access to a form of wrought iron, which is not that much stronger than bronze. The historians I was reading pointed to Assyria, not the Hittites, as using iron weapons successfully … but that doesn’t align as well with the Bible’s recorded emphasis on the Hittites, so WHAC lies. They also call Voltaire an “infidel” for being skeptical of its existence, which … alrighty then.

Not only that, we also get two entire pages on the Old and New Babylonian Empires and not even a whisper about some of the other empires that existed in the same time frame. It’s obvious from their constant references to Scripture that they’re giving this much space to Babylonia because the Bible does.

Another example is that we get two paragraphs about some missionaries that I feel like I’d never even heard of, even though WHAC was my textbook in highschool … and a single half-sentence on the Iranian Revolution. WHAC spends five pages giving us an “Update” on the modern near east, but one of the most significant events in modern history, something that has had massive consequences on world politics for decades, the Iranian Revolution, gets 12 words while four little-known missionaries get 121. That is literally ten times as much attention.

The text is also incredibly Islamaphobic. I didn’t even know what Islamaphobia was when I was reading this in high school, but it’s no wonder that I thought the worst possible things about Muslims, given what I was told. They make Islam seem beyond absurd– their “explanation” of Islamic theology is reductionist in the extreme as well as being actively deceptive. They claim that Muslims have to repeat the shahadah (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”) 125,000 times in order to be saved from hell, a claim I could find absolutely nowhere else. They also do not correct anything they’ve lied about in the third edition, published 12 years after 9/11.

They’re not just being biased against Islam the way we’ve seen hundreds of our religious and political leaders be over the last 15 years, they’re lying. For all they claim that the 10 Commandments are “universal” and “eternal principles” in this chapter, they must not think that applies to “bear no false witness against thy neighbor.”

Students are required to memorize and regurgitate the text’s Islamaphobia, as well. Of the 78 review questions, 28% ask students to answer questions like “Describe the origin of Islam and its effect on the Middle East” or “define Islam.” The answers: “Islam’s fanatical anti-Christian beliefs don’t allow missionaries to spread the gospel” and “Islam is a man-made religion that teaches people to rely on their own efforts” (35).

***

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I did want to direct your attention to one of the “wild assertions” above:

“Justice is the use of authority and power to uphold what is right, just, or lawful. It reflects the principle that every man is responsible for his own actions and should be treated accordingly.”

If you’ve ever wondered why Christians are so comfortable completely abdicating their responsibility to love their neighbor, or are completely oblivious to God’s emphasis on liberation, or believe that the United States has every right to slaughter Black men and women and call it justice–

This is why.

***

Lastly, I want to bring out something that may seem rather minor compared to the flagrant Islamaphobia, Eurocentrism, and racism in this chapter. When talking about the Persian Empire, they assert that “Darius established the world’s first postal service over the numerous roads he built to connect the empire.” This point gets six more lines, including a quote from Herodotus.

They completely ignore that there’s some uncertainty on who, exactly, expanded couriers into an early mail system. Many historians say it was Cyrus, and use a quote from Xenophon, a Greek historian, to back them up. Some others say no, it’s Darius, and argue the Herodotus quote (“neither snow nor rain…”) applies to his reign. Most of what I was reading say things like “It’s unclear whether…” when discussing this subject, and relay the above information.

World History and Cultures, however, can’t do that.

In the authors’ framework, there is nothing uncertain about history. There is no place for doubt, no place for questions, no place for exploration and growth. In a previous chapter they made the claim that a single man near-miraculously “cracked the code” of Sumerian cuneiform, instead of rightly attributing it to many scholars and the work of decades. In their world, there’s no slow progress from not knowing to we think this is right, at least the best answer we have right now. We are haplessly ignorant until God reveals the answers, and then those answers are incontrovertible.

This perspective even gets projected onto their philosophical opposition: Voltaire’s skepticism isn’t the result of a person who doesn’t believe in things there’s no evidence for, and would have gladly changed his mind if he’d been alive in 1906, when Winckler uncovered Hattusa. It’s not that historians study and grow and learn and expand knowledge; instead, they “deny God’s truth” because they’re “infidels” until God sees fit to “vindicate” the Bible.

This is why I’m arguing that World History and Cultures doesn’t exist to educate, but indoctrinate. They’re not interested in giving students a sense of wonder, curiosity, or learning. All they want is to make sure students stay inside the fundamentalist ideological box.

Social Issues

what we lost: white supremacy, immigration, and food

Several years ago, I began to notice the patterns and connections that bind up cisheteropatriarchy with toxic masculinity. Patriarchy, with all its queerphobic and femmephobic boundary-keeping, inevitably hurts many men as it strives to keep a certain kind of man in power. Around that time, I also began arguing that one of the reasons that patriarchy should be resisted and eradicated is that it represents a nearly incomprehensible loss of opportunity. What could we have, right now, if it weren’t for patriarchy? What advancements could half the human population have contributed if they hadn’t typically been treated as property and kept chained to a stove?

It didn’t take me long to see that similar patterns exist in white supremacy and racism. What has humanity lost because of white supremacy? What have white people lost in our bigoted, racist quest for power?

For me, personally, the answer has often been: food.

If you were to meet me in “real life,” in my home– in my kitchen– you’d quickly notice that I am pretty obsessed with the entire concept of food. One of my favorite books is Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, a thick and delightful tome I read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. I love trying new recipes, and adapting cuisines from all over the world to meet the needs of my diet and allergy restrictions. The Great British Bake Off (known in the US as The Great British Baking Show) is one of my all-time favorite things– I have watched and re-watched every single season, some of them multiple times. Nothing brings me quite as much joy as cooking for my friends and family, watching them relish roast chicken con fit or my delectable and toothsome gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

I also read about food. A lot. I inhale foodie magazines and I’m catching up now on Anthony Bourdain’s show after reading “What Anthony Bourdain Meant to People of Color” by Joumana Khatib. Some of my favorite articles I’ve ever read and that have made a lasting impact on me have been about food: “The Struggles of Writing about Chinese Food as a Chinese Person” by Clarissa Wei has become one of my touchstones and an oft-cited resource. “How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food, then make it trendy” by Ruth Tam is what I direct people to in order to help them understand cultural appropriation. “What’s The Difference Between Ethnic Food in America vs the Homeland (And Does it Matter)?” and other articles like it, covering the immigrant experience through food, is basically a genre all to itself and one I’ll always read.

Articles that treat food as a metaphor are also a favorite. “Hunger Makes Me” by Jess Zimmerman has stuck with me for years, and the most extraordinarily, achingly beautiful article I’ve read this year is “Cravings” by my friend Hännah Ettinger.

***

I hope you’ll bookmark all these and read them later, because now I’m going to talk about a travesty of an article I read yesterday: “How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise” by Sandy Hingston, accompanied by the hilarious subtitle “The inexorable rise of identity condiments has led to hard times for the most American of foodstuffs. And that’s a shame.” I don’t often read the “How Millennials Killed _____” articles until they hit tumblr and have been properly eviscerated first, but this one was about food … so I clicked it. And then read it aloud to Handsome as we drove home from the airport, laughing so hard I cried. It’s so badly written. If I were still teaching writing, this would be the example I’d force all my students to read so they can identify purple prose.

It’s also insidiously white supremacist.

My first thought was “geez lady, so people don’t like your potato salad, get a grip.” I was also entertained by the thought that all millennials hate mayo because I use it all the time, and the people I know– mostly millennials– gobble up my deviled eggs and potato salad like they’ll never eat again. How she’s extrapolating her personal experience onto an entire generation is beyond absurd. However, I wouldn’t be writing about her today if she hadn’t written the following:

My mom was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, born in the era in which huddled masses clambered ashore at Ellis Island, their pockets stuffed with kielbasa and chorizo and braunschweiger and makanek and lap cheong, and were processed in the great American assimilation grinder, emerging to dine happily ever after on Hatfield hot dogs and potato salad. …

America in the 1950s was full of strivers like Mom, desperate to forget family legacies of latkes and boxties and bramboráky, poring through the pages of Family Circle and Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day for stars-and-stripes recipes that repped their newfound land. They wanted all their strangeness to dissolve into the sizzling pot of Crisco that crisped their french (not French) fries. …

Besides, the impetus seemed righteous. In a world torn asunder by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two World Wars, our citizenry needed to come together, be united, rally behind a collective vision of what it meant to be an American: You lived in a single-family house, you drove a station wagon, you wore bowling shirts and blue jeans, and you slathered mayonnaise on everything from BLTs to burgers to pastrami on rye. …

My mom’s side of the family have a similar history– except my reaction is not a mastubatory “patriotic” celebration, but a sense of longing and grief. I don’t see the fact that my family’s cultural heritage was beaten out of us by decades of racism and bullying as a good thing like Sandy does. It’s a horrible reality that surviving in America as an immigrant often means exchanging kifle, csirke paprikash, and dobos torte for Waldorf salad and Spam.

My great-great grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe after the death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my great-great grandmother brought with her the recipes of her homeland. My great-grandfather taught us to make kifle for Christmas one year the way his mother used to, in pinwheels instead of little rolled crescents. She’d gotten tired of making the individual cookies for the entire family and decided to cross kifle with another Hungarian desert: beigli. For years, I made csirke paprikash by adding corn to the tomato-sour cream sauce and cooking it all up in a pressure cooker because that was how Grandpa did it: it was quick, and he liked corn. It surprised and delighted me when I found out csirke paprikash doesn’t traditionally include corn– it was what happened when my immigrant grandfather grew up in Ohio. Another family favorite is my grandmother’s spin on halupki: stuffed cabbage in a creamy bechamel instead of tomato sauce.

But so much else has been lost. My grandfather had a cookbook his mother had put together with her Hungrian/Czech/Polish neighbors, and even as a teenager I was thrilled with the discovery. I peppered him with questions: how often did she make this? What does this taste like?

It was a difficult conversation, because his answer often was “I don’t know. She’d stopped making it by the time I was old enough to remember.”

One of my grandfather’s most vivid memories is his mother shouting at his father when he occasionally reverted to Hungarian: “We’re in America now! We speak American!” There is also a thread of resentment woven through his childhood: he grew up being labeled a “Hunky” and eventually anglicized his name from “Vincze” to “Vincent” when he joined the Army Air Corps during WWII. White supremacy burdened both him and his mother with a desperate need to conform– to become bland, homogenous, and uniform. In order to be safe and successful in this country, they had to give up a centuries-old “perfect blend,” as Sandy would put it, of paprika, sour cream, and stewed tomatoes for jello molds and mayonnaise.

***

I fight white supremacy through my cooking.

There’s nothing wrong with mayonnaise– I love my potato salad, made with orange and red peppers instead of celery, and sour cream and paprika mixed with the mayonnaise– but I know in my bones that I have been robbed. White supremacy stole a whole legacy of flavors and dishes and enrobed my family’s meals in a banality of beige.

So, now I cook the delicious food we lost. The recipe I shared above for csirke paprikash is a show-stopper, and easily transformed to be gluten free (Jovial’s GF egg noodles work great). I plan on making dobos torte for my birthday in a month, and can’t wait to indulge in layers upon layers of chocolate and caramel. I’m still struggling to adapt kifle, since yeast-driven rising methods are difficult to accomplish with gluten-free flour– but I swear I’ll get there, and it will be delicious. My family also just discovered that one of my grandmothers immigrated here from Sicily as a mail-order bride, and now I’m happily buried in Sicilian-American recipes.

Arancini seems like a great place to start.

Photography by Windslash
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Sumer

I am hoping that, in the future, I will be able to do more than one chapter at a time. For health reasons, though, I have to limit myself to just one for today.

Inaccuracies:

Wild Assertions:

  • Pyramids, ziggurats and Maya Temples are supposedly so similar because there was a single culture that spread from the Tower of Babel.
  • Sumerians studied astrology because “they rejected the natural revelation of the one true God,” and “turned to the stars and planets for knowledge of the future” (19).
  • “the religion of the Sumerians led to hopelessness and purposelessness” (20).
  • Civilization cannot occur without “mastering the food supply” through “effective agricultural techniques” like crop irrigation (17).
  • WHAC says history cannot be preserved without a written language; however, we know that indigenous peoples in Australia have an accurate oral history that extends as far back as 10,00 years.

Assumptions:

  • The Garden of Eden was located in the Fertile Crescent.
  • “Writing has a conservative influence on culture,” and conservatism is crucial to development of civilizations (16).
  • Cultures can supposedly be ranked and categorized, from undeveloped to “highly developed” (17).

***

The most cursory and briefest of glances through my “Inaccuracies” section reveals a fundamental problem with World History and Cultures: in order for it to be internally consistent and to stay true to its claim that their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is historically, literally accurate, they are required to lie. They cannot tell students the truth about almost anything regarding the ancient world– to be honest, they’d be forced to acknowledge either that a) their interpretation and application of the Bible is flawed or b) the Bible is not accurate.

The chapter launches with a huge whopper of a lie: the “Rise of Sumerian civilization” was in 2300 BC– a full two thousand, two hundred years too late. However, they’ve already stated that the earth was created around 4,000 BC, which is five hundred years after the beginnings of Sumer.

They also have to assume that the Garden of Eden was a physical, historically real place and that it was located in Middle East. From there, Noah had to have landed in Turkey, and his descendants had to have traveled down the rivers to Mesopotamia and spread their culture from there. The fact that calendars, languages, schools, and technologies all arose independently in multiple cultures around the world proves that their understanding of history is not possible … so they have to lie. They have to deliberately mislead their students into believing that Sumer and only Sumer was the first to achieve lunar calendars, the wheel, schools, etc.

That they are willing to do this, and to go to this extent– 10 falsehoods in a single chapter, more than one lie per page– is disturbing.

***

In the section where they discuss the Sumerian government, they claim that Sumer was a “primitive democracy,” and then use Samuel Kramer to argue that power was in the hands of “free citizens,” that decisions affecting the entire city were made collectively. In the next paragraph, they say that “it became necessary for the city-states to adopt a strong, monarchial [sic] form of government” (19).

Untangling this actually took some digging, but first I want to point to the logic chain here. When Sumer “faced internal dissension and external threats,” a strong monarchy “became necessary.” To break it down: civil unrest and threats to national security make “strong” leaders– kings, tyrants, dictators– both necessary and, from the surrounding context, a good thing.

Again, I’m looking around at my country right now and thinking well that explains a lot. These authors aren’t just relaying history, they’re teaching a philosophy of government that bends toward authoritarianism.

There’s also a second thing happening here that isn’t immediately visible– you have to go fact-checking to discover this. They use the term “primitive democracy” to describe early Sumerian government. However, the “free citizens” who had political power in the first cities? They were they men who controlled the military power. They were the men with access to weapons and and who led fighting units. I won’t deny it makes sense that those sorts of men would control the political power in an early culture like Sumer, but it is interesting that WHAC describes this system as a democracy and not the “primitive oligarchy” it actually was. Not every person residing in the city-state had a political voice, and the authors think that this is enough to call a system a democracy.

No wonder they have no qualms oppressing voters, gerrymandering, or denying suffrage to whole classes of people. They think “democracy” and “oligarchy” are the same thing.

***

One of the main goals of this chapter is to teach that civilizations are only civilizations when they look and act like European civilizations. They give a definition of civilization that students are asked to write down verbatim several times in the section and chapter reviews:

A civilization comes into being when a people’s culture begins to include a specialized division of labor, a written language, a written code of laws, an organized form of civil government, and the developement of arts and sciences. Before any of these developments can take place, however, there must be a mastery over the food supply. All civilizations begin with the development of effective agricultural techniques. (17)

Lots of scholars argue that only one of these is necessary: writing and keeping written records. Some add other components, like social stratification or architecture. Abeka’s sticking point is “mastery over the food supply,” and they describe Sumer’s crop irrigation system at length. It’s not enough for WHAC that large groups of people can feed themselves, they have to do it in a particular way. That way looks like irrigated fields and the steady planting and harvesting of crops. It doesn’t include, for example, the way many Native American tribes practiced forestry before the arrival of European colonizers. North America wasn’t an “untamed wilderness” before the arrival of the colonizers; it just didn’t look suitably “mastered” to white people.

Abeka’s whole concept of “civilization” is deliberately exclusive, and it will be important to identify exactly who they’re excluding and why.

I didn’t identify any changes in the 3rd edition. The Fertile Crescent map in Since the Beginning is slightly more accurate; there is also more discussion of the evils of secular humanism in Sumerian culture than appears in the 10th grade version, as well as more focus on Abraham’s story.

*Some of these items are more recently discovered than the publication of World History and Cultures 2nd Edition, but have not been corrected in the latest edition.

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Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Foundations

To make things a little bit easier on y’all the readers and myself the reviewer, I’m going to split each review post into a few sections. The intent of this is to allow me to spend the bulk of my time digging into the philosophy at work in these textbooks instead of dedicating more of it to fact-checking and the at-times incredulous claims they make. I will highlight any inaccuracies that I can spot, as well as anything noteworthy that I can’t spend time on but that is still worth discussing.

Inaccuracies:

  • The timeline only goes back to 4,000 BCE, which is labeled “creation.”
  • Humans originated in Mesopotamia and were dispersed from there.

Wild Assertions:

  • The continents “broke apart” during one man’s lifetime from a single land mass (8).
  • Evolution leads to widespread abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and people become evolutionists to “escape their accountability to God” (4).
  • Humanism always leads to “decline and ultimate ruin” (5).

Assumptions:

  • History has a definite, identifiable structure and a narrative arc.
  • The Bible is factually, historically, literally accurate.
  • Everything following the Death and Resurrection of Christ is history’s dénouement.
  • The Tower of Babel sequence broke humanity into the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

***

One of the most important things I want to emphasize about studying World History and Cultures is that this is not a general survey history textbook in the sense that we would typically understand it: it is a religious history textbook. A more accurate title for it would be A History of the Christian Religion in a Global Context. It would still be full of misleading information, inaccuracies, and a stupefying amount of conjecture, but at least with a different title we would understand what it actually is in function.

However, it is also important to recognize the intention of this book, which is to provide a far-right, Christian fundamentalist interpretation of global history. Its mission is to “educate” students in a very particular, very narrow lens of viewing human events and to provide a framework for understanding current events. They’re crystal clear on this point:

The study of history is important because each generation needs to know about the people, events, and ideas of former generations in order to make wise decisions in the present …

We can learn the lessons of history and apply them to our own times and our own lives. In other words, we can begin to look at history in Christian perspective. (3-4).

The point of this textbook– the reason why Abeka commissioned it, the reasons why the authors wrote it– is to teach a generation of students to understand their position and role in modern society in a very particular way.

The primary message of the first chapter (“Foundations for the Study of History”) is that history has a definite and easily identifiable narrative arc. WHAC repeats that history has a “beginning, middle, and end” and that the Christian religion is the only means of accessing the “whys” of history. The authors will be looking to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible to shape their historical narrative, and will be using a fundamentalist understanding of God’s sovereignty to explain the “whys” instead of bothering with silly little things data or research.

Along with declaring that the Bible is the only credible source of information on “prehistoric” times (which it teaches doesn’t actually exist, since the Bible encapsulates all of history and all of it is therefore “recorded” [7]), WHAC gives two methods for contextualizing all of human history. The first is an explanation of BC and AD, the second is that history is divided into three eras: ancient, medieval, and modern (4). Their benchmarks for these eras are localized to Europe: the fall of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation. I’ve written before on Christian fundamentalism’s obsession with Western Civilization— this is just one more example of it. When a Christian fundamentalist harps on the concept of “Western civilization,” they don’t just mean a broad cultural, economic, and legal heritage: they mean white and Christian.

***

Since we’re dealing with the section of WHAC that is using Genesis 1-11 to “teach” about pre-historic and proto-historic times, it’s filled to the brim with about what one would expect. Adam and Eve, Noah, and Nimrod are all definitively real people, there was a global flood, etc. It’s barely worth comment.

What did draw my attention was how they explained the rise of government and nations. They explain that “The sovereignty of God over all nations is the foundation of human government,” and then argue that “God established” the “first foundational civil ordinance” [emphasis theirs] by “ordering the death penalty for murder” (4).

Well… that certainly explains a lot.

This view of government– the view that capital punishment is the foundation of government— is inherently violent. It posits that the state’s purpose is primarily punitive, that governments do not exist to protect or help anyone, but to discipline and chastise.

At this point, please remember what WHAC has already made brutally clear: we are intended to learn from history to apply it to our current context and our actual lives. Take the lesson that government exists to punish and apply it to any current situation and what do you get?

Babies being ripped out of their mother’s sobbing arms. Women miscarrying in detention without medical care. Children dying in government shelters. Jeff Sessions invoked Romans 13 to justify his atrocities (and so does WHAC: “He did command his people to be obedient to civil authority” (5).), but the actual justification comes from this entire logic chain. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen an infuriating number of people contend that if parents didn’t want the US government to kidnap their kids, then they shouldn’t have come here. This is where that argument begins.

***

…there are many different kinds of people. Mankind can be divided into several large groups called races. The people of each race differ from those of other races in the color of their skin, in the size and shape of their head, in the kind and color of their hair, and in many other physical features.” (6)

We need to talk about “kind.”

World History and Cultures is the 10th grade history textbook from Abeka. Many schools and parents use the same publisher for more than one course– mine did, and we used the Abeka science textbook also meant for 10th graders: Biology: God’s Living Creation. In it, 10th grade students would be learning about the young earth creationist definition of “kind.”

Abeka’s definition of “kind” is drawn from Genesis 1:12, the divine instruction for creation to reproduce after its “kind.” Kinds is a roughly similar term, in creationist parlance, to “species.” Answers in Genesis says that “if two things can breed together, then they are of the same created kind.” They (and Abeka) note that some kinds can be closer than others, and that animals from different groupings can mate and produce offspring but that the offspring will often be sterile, or have other genetic problems.

When WHAC says that there are “many different kinds of people” and that these “kinds” are “divided into several large groups,” it is making this claim in the context of Biology’s definition of “kind,” which the student would probably be reading on the same day.

Obviously they are not making the claim that people of European and African descent can’t mate and produce fertile offspring. However, they are arguing for a very particular view of racial theory: it is a real barrier, a real divide, the differences between the races are concrete, measurable, definable and “plain.” They even point to some supposedly quantifiable “shape of their head,” which is evoking the racist “scientific” field of phrenology.

They are arguing that different human races exist.

Please note that WHAC does not make this claim as a cultural one, or a historical one, or a sociopolitical one, but as a biological one. Biological definitions of race– “biologically” based means of “dividing” the races– only exist in the minds of racial supremacists.* This view is not just morally bankrupt, it has led to some of the worst acts of barbarity the world has ever known.

And they have to audacity to claim that evolution and humanism only ever lead to decline and ruin?

***

Each chapter concludes with a review– as a homeschooler, this sort of thing was my only homework. There’s eight questions for students to answer, and it’s revealing what those questions focus on. They ask the students to use the text to define evolution, humanism, and race (where the answers would be, based on the reading, “evil, evil, and a biological reality”) and to identify the “builder of the first world empire and the meaning of his name” (answer: Nimrod, “rebel”). Half the questions focus on things that are ideological in nature: remind yourselves how bad evolution and humanism are, please look up our definitely-white-supremacist definition of race again, and oh, by the way, here’s a heaping side dish of “one world governments are rebellion against God.”

And this is just the first chapter.

The third edition shortens this chapter by a half page, but all the same elements are present. Since the Beginning focuses exclusively on telling the biblical story from Genesis 1-11, and interestingly does not include any  discussion of race.

*For more reading, please check out “The Science You Need to Know to Explain why Race is Not Biological.”

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: the Review Introduction

World History and Cultures in Christian Perspective (which I will abbreviate as WHAC from now on) is put out by the publishing arm of Pensacola Christian College, Abeka Book (named after Rebekah Horton, one of PCC’s founders). Not only did my family use this textbook when I was in tenth grade, this is also the textbook used at PCC in their history survey classes HI 101 and 102, which were required courses for nearly every student. When I introduced the concept of reviewing WHAC on Facebook and Twitter, a few of you asked if this is a common homeschooling textbook– and yes, it is, but Abeka curriculum is widely used in many Christian schools around the world and in the US. This fact is especially concerning considering that many of these private Christian schools benefit from scholarship and voucher programs; so, if you’re a tax-paying US citizen, chances are your tax dollars are paying for books like WHAC.

A few news outlets have already done an enormous amount of work looking into these textbooks and their widespread use; I’d encourage you to read the following articles to get a good understanding of the significance and cultural power publishers like Abeka now enjoy.

Schools without Rules” at the Orlando Sentinel by Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab, and Annie Martin

Voucher Schools Championed by Betsy DeVos can Teach whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies” at Huffington Post by Rebecca Klein (normally I wouldn’t link to a HuffPo article, but Klein did an incredible job reporting this)

14 Wacky ‘Facts’ Kids Will Learn in Lousiana’s Voucher Schools” at Mother Jones by Deanna Pan

Klein found that Abeka tended to be the most popular– used in about a quarter of the Protestant schools she looked into– and the Sentinel reporters discovered that 65% of the schools they looked into in Florida used either ABeka, BJUPress, or ACE. The prevalence of these textbooks in taxpayer-funded schools should be deeply disturbing to all of us because the ideas these publishers teach are counterproductive to a democratic and free society.

That sounds conspiratorial and borderline hysterical, I know. However, it is not a coincidence that we’ve had a half dozen white supremacist domestic terrorists this year who were homeschooled using these textbooks and went to colleges like Pensacola Christian. It is not the ultimate goal of these publishers to radicalize terrorists, but it is an acceptable inevitability to the people who created these programs. The curricula exist to indoctrinate children in a “Christian perspective” of society, a perspective that explicitly includes white supremacy and Christian nationalism.

I know that’s a broad claim. Unfortunately, it won’t be difficult to prove.

***

A lot of time and attention has been given to examples from Accelerated Christian Education booklets– if you’ve seen a screen shot or picture about a conservative Christian textbook making ludicrous claims about the Loch Ness monster or how Black children are “ugly” and white children are “pretty,” chances are it’s from ACE. Their booklets have some of the most outrageous and egregious examples, so they get a lot of space in articles about conservative Christian textbooks. Abeka is the most popular publisher, though, and part of that is due to their relative circumspection. They teach all the same ideas as ACE, but they do it in a … less spectacular way. In order to expose the white supremacy at the heart of Abeka’s history textbooks, you have to spend a lot of time digging into them.

That, plus my personal experience, is why I chose to focus on Abeka. After that, I had to pick a grade and edition. I decided to start with world history because Abeka’s goals to manipulate and indoctrinate are clearer than if I were looking at US history (and, to be honest, you can throw a rock and hit a racist US history textbook). Ultimately, I decided to focus my attention on the second edition of WHAC because that was the one most commonly used by students my age. The point of examining WHAC is to expose what an entire generation of students grew up being taught, not just to point fingers at ABeka. For fairness’ sake, I also got their newest edition. I didn’t notice any significant changes, but I will note them as I go through if they change something that matters, like correcting an inaccuracy or shifting the ideological assertions.

I also got a copy of Since the Beginning: History of the World in Christian Perspective, Creation through Twentieth Century (the 7th grade Abeka history book) from my colleague, Ryan Stollar. He’s already tweeted his way through Since the Beginning, but I thought it could be useful to see what Abeka teaches before high school, since a lot of private schools cut off at eighth grade. I’ll mention Since the Beginning on occasion, just to provide more context.

***

WHAC is the product of a team of people (several of whom were my professors at PCC), but the primary authors are Jerry Combee and George Thompson. Both were difficult to identify, but I finally found their bios and … to be frank, it surprised me and made me even more suspicious.

Combee has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from Emory University, and a PhD in Government from Cornell. He’s taught political philosophy at a bunch of places and was president of both Grove City College and University of Jamestown (ND). His other work is flagrantly ideological, and makes it obvious why PCC asked him to write their history textbooks.

Thompson went to Colgate University, then the University of Connecticut. His PhD is from Princeton, and all of his work has been in rhetoric and persuasion– after helping with WHAC, he went on to found an organization to teach “Verbal Judo,” a “way to defuse conflict and redirect behavior into more positive channels.” His program has been heavily utilized by US-based police forces, apparently.

Combining these two authors should make it clear that the primary purpose of World History and Cultures isn’t education, but ideological indoctrination. They didn’t seek out excellent history scholars or good research-writers, but men whose entire education and life’s work was focused on manipulation and persuasion, not the honest relaying of information and its context.

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
Social Issues

The Misuse and Abuse of “Gaslighting”

The ride home from church was the most miserable thirteen minutes I’d ever spent in a car. My parents were gone, in south Florida dealing with my late uncle’s house and furniture and baseball card collection, so a pastor’s daughter was staying with my sister and me over the weekend since we weren’t quite old enough to be left by ourselves.

That morning, in church, the pastor had taught from the Parable of the Talents, and his words have been branded into my memory. Even though over a decade has come and gone since that Sunday, I can feel the pew underneath me, see the wood paneling on the wall next to me, watch the light filtering in through wavy, colored glass. I feel my stomach wrench as I see necks in the congregation stiffen, fighting the urge to turn around and look at me. I’m still not sure what most of those people felt for me in that moment: pity or recrimination?

He spoke about the man who buried his talent into the sand, and then, without looking directly at me, told everyone that “a young lady sitting here in this church service” had stopped playing the piano for the congregational singing because I was rebelling against God and burying my talent in the sand. According to him, it had nothing to do with the tendonitis that we were desperately trying to heal without needing surgery. No, I was vain and ambitious and God was going to punish me for my sin.

I got home and went straight into my parent’s bedroom. I shut the door behind me, grabbed the phone from a nightstand, and then shut myself in my mother’s closet. Curled up in her laundry, I called my parents and sobbed out what had happened.

My father demanded a private meeting with the pastor the very next week. Calmly but fiercely he confronted the pastor over what he’d done, and that he expected an apology. Without missing a beat, the pastor looked my father and I dead square in the eyes and lied. Yes, he’d mentioned that someone wasn’t using their piano talent, but he was not talking about me. He was talking about a different person, an older man who could also play the piano. I had misunderstood him. I’d taken what he’d said personally when I shouldn’t have—but shouldn’t we take this as a sign that the Holy Spirit was convicting me, if I’d heard him talk about a different person and assumed it applied to myself?

I protested—“no, you said ‘a young lady sitting here in this church service’”—but he stuck with his hideous lie. All through that horrifying argument he insisted that I’d over-reacted, that I was being overly defensive, that I was selfishly and childishly making everything about me. Toward the end he started swaying my father. Wasn’t it reasonable that I’d just misunderstood him? I even started doubting myself. Maybe he hadn’t attacked me, personally, from the pulpit. Maybe he was right.

***

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as “gaslighting” has become a more familiar term to many of us. The first time I encountered the word, it was almost a the-veil-has-parted, scales-have-fallen-from-my-eyes moment. I found peace and comfort in that word, because I finally understood what had been happening to me for most of my life. What that pastor did was gaslighting. What an abusive rapist did to me was gaslighting. It made everything make sense. Finally, I had a word for what I had only been able to experience silently: desperation so real, so hard, I could choke on it. Panic, confusion, and humiliation all at once.

Gaslighting works because it is so utterly shocking, so incomprehensible. What kind of a person tells his wife that she’s imagining things for thinking the gaslights have not changed after he just changed them? Who would do that? Our generally empathetic, rational minds assume: no one. No one could do that. Instead, the more reasonable answer is that our memory is faulty, that our comprehension is flawed. After all, we’re only human. We can make mistakes. We don’t always remember things accurately.

Abusers do this specifically to destabilize their victims, to cause them to mistrust their own perception. It’s a core tactic that makes the rest of the abuse possible: the victim learns to trust the abuser to provide the narrative. Over time, their very identity can be supplanted by what the abuser wants.

For years, I was grateful that gaslighting was getting so much attention, because it’s one of the most alien parts of a victim’s life, and it can be extremely difficult to explain. Just remembering—reliving—that meeting in the pastor’s office makes me shake. I physically flinch away from thinking about it. All the times an abuser has twisted everything around me until I doubt my own memory and sense of self … it’s devastating, and the effects are long lasting. It took a very long time for me to be confident in my memory of that sermon, and even now I can feel the stirrings of doubt.

However, I’m becoming convinced that “gaslighting” is going to lose its usefulness because people are casually misusing it. There have been a few times over the last year, even, where I’ve seen people use “gaslighting” maliciously.

As people have begun using the term more frequently, what has stayed with it is the implicit moral judgment it makes: gaslighting is not just bad, not just impolite, not just harmful: it’s abusive. Describing a person’s conversation, or social media comment/interaction (since, let’s be honest, I’ve seen this happen most often on Facebook and Twitter), as “gaslighting” means that the person opposing you in the discussion is being more than unfair, they’re being abusive. Once the accusation has been made, it substantively changes the interaction. Suddenly, it’s about whether or not this person is behaving abusively, and that’s an incredibly serious matter that deserves the proper amount of concern. Considering this accusation gets tossed out among people who know what gaslighting even is, the reaction is usually swift and nearly universal: stop. Get out, get away from us, we don’t serve your kind here.

In a way, I understand why it happens. As an abuse survivor, one of the things that can send me for a loop is when someone questions my honesty or accuses me of deceit. Since I’m a feminist on the internet who frequently talks about sexual assault, that happens … well, it happens a lot. In the beginning, someone saying I’m a liar would keep me up at night. I spent a lot of time defending myself, trying to prove them wrong, until I realized how absolutely pointless that was. Even after developing a pretty thick skin, “you’re lying!” still bothers me in a way few other types of harassment do.

When I’m in a discussion, I can sometimes feel triggered by someone dismissing me, denying my experiences, belittling them, or just plain disagreeing. Sometimes, it feels like I’m back in that office being gaslighted into believing I am capable of making up entire statements out of hole cloth and mistaking my imagination for the truth. So, I get it. I get why we could be in a conversation, especially with a hostile person, and start feeling that way again and trusting our instincts. If we feel the same way we did when we were being gaslighted, well, then, they’re gaslighting.

I think we need to be more cautious.

Over the last several years, I’ve seen “gaslighting” come out as an accusation so many times when what is happening is not actually gaslighting. People can be jerks without resorting to gaslighting. People can be obtuse—even deliberately obtuse. Our experiences can be dismissed, and we can be made to feel irrelevant, noisy, bothersome. Our totally appropriate anger can be derided as an over-reaction. People can be infuriating when they refuse to trust the words we’ve chosen for our stories. They can lie and manipulate. It’s utterly galling when any of the above happens, and that sort of behavior deserves to be called out. Expecting our discussion partners—even hostile ones—to converse in good faith is reasonable and we should hold them to that standard.

I want future abuse survivors to hear the term “gaslighting” for the first time and have it mean something to them, the way it did for me. I want it to exist for them as the beacon it was for me, for it to restore them to themselves. I want it to say to them “you can trust yourself, you aren’t crazy, you are not imagining it.”

That’s not going to happen if we keep accusing people of “gaslighting” when we actually mean “you’re being an ass, please stop.”

Photography by Steve Snodgrass

Social Issues

on HSLDA and homeschooling culture

When I found out about the Turpin parents and how they had starved and tortured their children, like most of my colleagues who have been fighting for more protections for homeschooled students … I was unsurprised. Horrified, sickened, heartbroken, but not surprised. This isn’t even the first time parents have starved and tortured more than a dozen kids in California since 2000. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about yet another case of a “homeschooling” parent abusing or murdering their children.

For a lot of reasons– in my opinion, primarily the pictures that show the family in matching clothes that don’t change from year to year– the Turpin story made international news. 20/20 did a story on them, as did many other US-based national media outlets. Friends of mine that live overseas from me read about it in their newspapers. The common theme: how could this have happened?!

The answer is easy: The Home School Legal Defense Association.

I started pitching pieces about the Turpins, explaining exactly how that was possible and how they were able to get away with it for decades, and an editor at The Establishment was interested. In our conversation, she asked a lot of really great questions about HSLDA, and the piece morphed into an explanation of the political power HSLDA wields in American politics. I’ve been interviewing people, including the heads of HSLDA and Generation Joshua, for about a month now, and the article came out this morning.

I am hoping this article can become a resource, hopefully a touchstone for people trying to explain HSLDA and how homeschooling culture has become what it is: a bastion, a legal shelter, for abusers and killers. As far as I’m aware, this is the first article anywhere covering the HSLDA like this, in a way that’s accessible and can be read in about five-ten minutes.

You can read it here: “Meet HSLDA, the Most Powerful Religious-Right Lobby You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Also, if you use the Medium app, The Establishment is a really awesome online magazine and you should totally follow them.

Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw