Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Non-consensual Marriage

Plot summary:

  • Michael gives in to “God,” goes back to Pair-a-Dice for Angel.
  • He discovers that she’s been beaten.
  • Marries her while she’s nearly unconscious and delirious.
  • Then he takes her back to the farm, where she recuperates.
  • Angel tries to learn how to cook and lay a fire, but fails.
  • She tries to seduce him, but he refuses.

***

I’m going to skip most of chapter six, which is mostly just Francine getting Michael back to Pair-a-Dice and the Palace to “get” Angel, where he finds her beaten and nearly unconscious. This firms up his belief that he’s been ordered by God to take her away, but he decides they have to get married before they leave town.

Right now I’m wondering why on earth Francine thinks they have to get married right then. The next few chapters reveals that he’s not intending to have sex with her until she’s not doing it as a “chore,” so there’s no motivation to marry her for that reason. Everyone knows she’s a prostitute, so it’s not to “protect her reputation” (like what frequently happens in other Christian romance novels). So why marry her right this instant, when it’s absolutely clear that she’s in no state to consent to being married and he knows that she wants nothing to do with him?

I don’t want to be so cynical to assume that Francine has these two get married at this point so that Angel is trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want, but there’s no other narrative reason I can see that makes sense. It’s possible she has them get married so that she doesn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the modern conservative evangelical reader, but as far as story telling goes this is pretty horrible. It’s especially horrible considering the fact that laws of coverture where still in place. By marrying her, knowing that if she knew what was going on she never would have even said “why not?” (note there: she doesn’t say “yes,” and Michael is such an abominable monster where that is good enough for him), he now actually, literally, legally owns a woman he knows doesn’t want to be married to him.

And that’s how this whole situation starts.

There’s one significant issue being woven into these chapters that needs to be highlighted. At several points, Francine gives us something like this:

Angel couldn’t tell whether her sarcasm had gotten to him or not. It occurred to her belatedly that she might anger him and this wasn’t the best time to do so. She swallowed more soup and tried not to show her fear. (105)

and this:

What did he want from her? And why did she sense he was more dangerous than all the other men she had ever known? (110)

Angel’s backstory has made it clear that she’s experienced a lifetime of abuse, and people like me see Angel’s reactions to Michael’s every facial expression and vocal tone as hypervigilance, but frustratingly that’s not an interpretation we can take for granted in Redeeming Love. People like Francine aren’t entirely ignorant about what some of the consequences of abuse might be, it’s just that they look at something like hypervigilance and see bitterness instead. In this story, the reader “understands” that Michael is nothing like the abusive men Angel’s experienced. We’re supposed to take him at his word when he says he’ll never hurt her, that he loves her. Instead, we’re supposed to look at Angel’s mental commentary as a sign that she is bitter, and her own understanding of the situation isn’t to be trusted. She’s over-reacting.

The reality is that the opposite of this is true. In my experience, many Christians, especially those who ascribe to “nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, take Francine’s point of view: trauma can result in bitterness, and that bitterness can poison a victim’s entire way of thinking … but they couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, victims are usually more capable of spotting abuse than people who haven’t been traumatized. Couple this over-writing of how victimhood is typically experienced with the fact that this section is called “Defiant” and she starts these chapters with quotations like “I am dying of thirst by the side of a fountain,” it’s clear that the reader is supposed to see Angel as stubborn, bitter, and inherently untrustworthy as a narrator.

What makes it worse is that Michael is doing things that are abusive.

“By the way. My name isn’t Mara. It’s Angel. …”
“The name Mara comes from the Bible,” he said, “It’s in the book of Ruth.”
“And being a Bible-reading man, you figure Angel is too good a name for me.”
“Good’s got nothing to do with it. Angel isn’t your real name.”
“Angel is who I am.”
His face hardened. “Angel was a prostitute in Pair-a-Dice, and she doesn’t exist anymore.” (105)

One of the first things an abuser has to do is erase their victim’s innate sense of personhood and their right to their own sense of self. They intentionally strip their victim of their own identity, and replace it with what they want their victim to be.

Then this happens:

“Look,” she said tightly, “I want to start getting up and about on my own. With something on.”
“I’ll provide what you need when you need it.”
“I need it now.” (113)

He does give her clothes to wear in this scene, but it’s brutally clear that he did it because he decided she needed them, not because she said she needed them. Another thing abusers have to do is make sure their victims are dependent on them. Sometimes this takes the form of financial abuse, sometimes they make their victims feel that they’re incapable and incompetent, but it’s all about making sure they can’t leave you. This particular scene is troubling because it’s one of the ones that connects Michael’s character to God’s: a common Christian concept is that God provides us exactly what we need when They decide we need it, and not a second earlier.

Oh, and then this:

Michael studied her with patience. She was small and weak but possesed and iron will. It shone from her defiant blue eyes and the rigid way she was holding herself. She thought she had enough to overcome him. She was wrong. He was doing God’s will, and he had plans of his own, plans that kept growing, but he had said all he was going to say for a while. Let her think on it.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t own you, but you’re not running away from this.”

He’s saying he doesn’t own her, but he does feel entitled to her. He explains his “plans” in a bit– additions to the house, watching their children grow up– but at this moment there’s something missing from his statement: she’s not running away because he won’t let her. If you’ve read Redeeming Love before, you know that the implied threat there is ultimately carried out.

This is what makes me say that Michael is an abuser: his overwhelming sense of entitlement. That is the single biggest problem that all abusers share. Universally, abusers feel entitled to their victim. They believe that they have the absolute right to marry a woman who’s been beaten into delirium and rename her and threaten her and tell her she’s going to have his kids while she is vocally objecting the entire time. Can you even picture a man who you barely know sitting across from you on a coffee date telling you that you’re going to marry him and have his children and oh, by the way, you keep saying you want to leave but I’m not going to let you?

The fact that Francine and a vast majority of the people who read Redeeming Love think that Michael is an excellent stand-in for God is detestable and horrifying.

Theology

thoughts on my first week in seminary

I’ve spent the last week traveling– Mineeapolis, then Ann Arbor, then Lansing, back to Ann Arbor, and home again– and I had homework today, so no Redeeming Love review this week. I figured that instead I could let you all know what my first impressions of seminary are so far. First, a shout-out to Emmy Kegler who was a magnificent hostess for my stop in Minneapolis. I stayed in the attic of the most adorable bungalow ever, was cuddled by a floppy-eared cuteness puppy brigade named Gertrude and Hildegarde, and drank tea out of a Mario-themed mug. It was a good visit.

***

Very first thought on seeing campus: am I in the right place? This does not look … open. It has a creepy empty ghost-town vibe. This is due to the fact that a large part of United’s campus is dedicated prairie space, filled with native plants allowed to grow abundantly and unchecked. They also have bee hives on campus, and have beekeeping courses open to the community. It makes the front end of campus look abandoned, but it’s actually a pretty cool thing they’re doing.

Second thought: I’m not the oldest person here, not by a long-shot. I was mildly nervous that starting seminary at 29 would put me seven years ahead of most of the students; while there are many who just graduated with their bachelor’s, there were plenty of others my age or older. However, that did cause me to mistake a professor for a student, which caused a conversation she was probably too polite to indicate she didn’t exactly follow.

Leading to my third observation: the professors are incredibly engaged with the students. I’ve heard a lot of speeches about how the faculty are there to foster student growth and learning, but I think this might be the first place where I was actually convinced that was true.

Another thing I was nervous about was chapel. My experiences with college chapels thus far has been … well, they’ve largely been coercive and manipulative from start to finish. I knew I was in a progressive place, but I still felt anxious and uncertain. When I walked in and the entire seating area was blocked off by caution tape, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with that. The speaker used it as a metaphor for how seminary can be a “dangerous” space, and it felt downright odd for someone to use an image like that and mean something like “seminary can make you feel vulnerable and challenge beliefs you didn’t know you had” instead of “you’re going to be blasted and stomped on by THE SPIRIT OF CONVICTION.” He also used the phrase liminal space, and hearing something with mystical connotations to it used in a chapel context made my heart glow just a little bit.

I went to chapel twice, and we sang hymns and songs from all over the world. I wondered if singing a Bolivian hymn or singing in Arabic would make me feel out of place, but it didn’t. It was a really lovely reminder that my American culture isn’t the only way Christianity is experienced. There was even some dancing, and we played a few icebreaker games. It was the first time in three years when someone asked me “oh, what do you write about?” and I wasn’t nervous about answering them.

***

My hands-down favorite thing so far is the library, which I’m sure surprises exactly none of you. I’m used to general-interest libraries for counties or colleges, so a special-interest library like a seminary library is a completely new experience and I’m completely head over heels in love. I also didn’t realize how much I missed honest-to-goodness librarians. I was worried about having access to research materials since I’ll be doing almost all my work a thousand miles away– but he made it clear that if I need access to something I can get it. I can also check out books for the entire term, so I looked up all the projects and papers I’ll be doing this semester and checked out a lot of books and mailed them home to myself.

I spent the day carrying around a box full of books, and people would stop and ask why. As I explained about being a distance student and looking up all the project requirements the night before, at least three people made a Hermione comparison, which of course I didn’t mind a bit. I absolutely would have read Hogwarts: A History before I even got on the Express.

Because I’m so excited (and because they arrived today): here’s what I got:

  • The Hauerwas Reader edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, because people quote Hauerwas and Nouwen all of the time and I figured I should at least be familiar with one of them.
  • Is Life Sacred? by Geoffrey Drutchas– there are a surprising number of texts on abortion written by men … or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
  • A Brief, Catholic Defense of Abortion by Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete because the “Catholic” bit piqued my interest.
  • Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion by Beverly Harrison because it looked like the most comprehensive book the library had on the topic.
  • Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions by Daniel Maguire and I didn’t even look at the back cover because I’m doing a presentation on abortion for my Comparative Religious Bioethics course and taking this one home just seemed obvious.
  • Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics by Marcella Althaus-Reid looks amazing because the first chapter is titled “Indecent proposals for women who like to do theology without using underwear” and it just gets better from there.
  • Introducing Feminist Theology edited by Anne Clifford. My feminist theological education has been piecemeal so far, and I’m taking steps to correct now that I can check out $100 books.
  • Feminism is for Everybody and All About Love by bell hooks because I’ve read some of her other work but not those two in their entirety which is pretty much a sin in my book.
  • Woman Invisible: A Personal Odyssey in Christian Feminism by Marga Buhrig because it seemed interesting.
  • Feminist Theology: A Reader edited by Ann Loades because it features basically everyone, including a few names I’ve only heard of and can’t find any of their work online.
  • Rape in Marriage by Diana Russell because I reference this book all of the time and I’ve only been able to read sections of it so far. This one isn’t for a class, but because of personal interest.
  • The Battered Woman by Lenore Walker, also because I reference it– at points, on an almost-daily basis. Lenore was the one who first articulated the “Cycle Theory,” arguing that abuse follows a Honeymoon-Escalation-Incident model.
  • Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home by James and Phyllis Alsdurf, because many of the books I’ve read have referenced this one, and because it’s exactly up my alley.
  • and, lastly, The Religious Context of Misogynous Relational Violence: An Ethnographic Study by Norine Roberts-Oppold because it’s basically perfect. It’s her dissertation, and I’m going to try to find her and let her know I’m reading it.

***

I’ve done a few homework assignments and have more homework to do this afternoon– but I think I might be able to manage two courses ok. I’m used to graduate classes involving more work than what these two have assigned, but we’ll see what the future holds. Two of the papers are even the length of a blog post, so that works out great for me!

Photo by OiMax
Theology

Christian kindness as gaslighting

I think that at this point it’s pretty obvious I’m a “liberal” or “progressive” Christian. I’m still not entirely sure what those terms might mean (does anybody?), but I’m excluded from a variety of Christian spaces because of my beliefs. Sometimes I think that’s weird, considering I still affirm the ancient creeds of the Christian faith so I feel that when it comes down to the brass tacks of it all there’s more we can agree on than stuff we’ve can’t, but I’m learning not to let it bother me.

I want to be a part of Christian community. I meet with other Christians every week to talk about living our faith and that meets an important spiritual need for me, but I also want to be involved in the wider religious context. As much as I find Christian culture alienating and as often as I criticize it, I’m not of the mind to abandon it– not entirely.

Because of that, I’ve spent the last few years interacting with Christians that … well, we tend not to agree. In the conversations I’ve been having for the past three years, I’ve noticed a few patterns. Almost all of these interactions happen online, so of course that’s a dynamic all its own, and means that my experiences might be less nuanced than in-person encounters would allow.

Conversation Type #1: Hostile

It’s not always obvious from the beginning of the conversation that it’s going to rapidly deteriorate into verbal abuse, but it frequently starts out argumentative. The people who want to argue come to me with many assumptions about my positions, or have clearly already decided what they think about my any argument I could make. I’m not treated as a reasonable person with a credible thought process from the outset, so there’s usually no point in engaging with this type of person. If I respond at all, it’s to point them in the direction of what I think is a good post on the subject and then block them if need be.

Example: a few weeks ago I had this interaction on my blog’s Facebook wall:

Jeff Fink: Can someone provide “FACTS” to go along with the accusations?
Me: There are plenty of sources cited in the article itself.
Jeff: Child rape? Death threat? Do you have police reports, court documents, something of that nature? Thanks for checking.
Me: Like I said, there are sources cited in the article.
Jeff: So Samantha are you a true benevolent Nortic creature of peace and truth? Or are you a reptilian of the forbidden fruit?

A reptilian of the forbidden fruit? I had a good laugh and moved on.

Conversation Type #2: Open

These are my absolute favorite, and I’ve had two good experiences with this type even just this week. Today, even. A friend of mine made a remark about finding Martin Freeman attractive, and someone she knows asked for clarification on sexual objectification and the difference between commenting on a man’s appearance vs. a woman’s. The conversation went well and everyone stayed civil and kind. I’ve gotten a few comments recently on this post that I think are wonderful– here and here.

I like questions that are genuinely asking for my thoughts. We may not come out on the other side agreeing, but I think it’s important that we do our best to understand each other. I try to have compassion and charity in my heart when I approach my comment section, although that’s not always possible for reasons that might not have anything to do with the comments themselves.

Conversation Type #3: “Nice”

This is the type that prompted this whole post. This type I am done having, and while Christians aren’t the only ones who do this sort of thing in general, it takes on a whole new color when it’s a Christian doing it. Last week, Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, said something incredibly dismissive, and a few of us called her on it. She responded to us, and I and Emily and Elizabeth took some time to try to explain to her why what she said was wrong. I even wrote an entire post.

But all of her responses had something in them that I’ve seen hundreds of times over the past few years:

A “teachable spirit.”

Humility.

Graciousness.

All of it false.

***

In the aftermath of that conversation, a few of us who’d participated in it or watched it happen came to a realization: we were being triggered by it. It was deeply upsetting us even though Katelyn stayed perfectly cordial for the entire discussion. Conversations with someone who isn’t being ridiculous and awful don’t usually make you want to smash everything, but that one did.

That’s when we figured it out: this type of “Nice” conversation is a form of gaslighting. In that conversation, Katelyn was attempting to subvert our observations of the interaction. Her initial comment was awful, and given all our history, obviously demonstrates that she has not listened to people like me or Elizabeth when we’ve talked to her about it in the past. She took what we had to say and tossed it right out the window … but then had the audacity to claim that she “had no idea” that there was a connection between purity culture and rape culture, that she was “sorry if she was dismissive,” that she’d “love to hear more.”

She was responding specifically to #IKDGstories and #stillpurityculture– she had already heard “more,” she just didn’t give a flying fart in space.

That’s what makes this gaslighting. She was trying to pretend that what we knew as true– that she’d seen all of us sharing how I Kissed Dating Goodbye kept us in abusive relationships and all the rest– never happened, even though her own damn tweet showed she was well aware. But, instead of getting aggressive and angry like my rapist used to, she did it all with sugar and sweetness and using our first names like she was our friend. She expected us to treat her like she meant it, like she was being honest, even though we had all the proof in the world that she couldn’t care less.

I’m merely using Katelyn because she’s a conveniently recent example, but I’ve seen this same conversation style play out over and over again, and I’m so bloody tired of it happening.

I think things like being humble, patient, and engaged are considered virtues to most Christians– it’s part of how we’re supposed to “reach the lost” and all that. But instead of being humble, being teachable, they just put on a big show and slap some syrupy niceness on it. As long as they look justifiably “nice” to the people on their side of the fence, as long as they leave plenty of wiggle room in what they could have meant, it’s acceptable. When people like me say no, this is not ok, she– and those watching– get to act like our justified anger is an overreaction.

Photo by Nicola
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: August edition

So I’m heading out to seminary today, so no Redeeming Love review this week. Sorry that’s been inconsistent so far, but I’m hoping that after this I can be better about posting new segments on Mondays.

Articles on Feminism

In Defense of Villainesses” by Sarah Gailey is just positively brilliant. Also, if you’re a geek and not reading the Tor blog what are you even doing? I’ve read it a few times because I’ve loved it just that much. I read a review of Gone Girl a while ago that inspired similar feelings— her “we need women who breathe fire” still manages to induce chills.

This one also could go under “Politics,” but I think it fits better under “Feminism.” Written by Michelle Cottle, “The Era of ‘The Bitch’ is Coming” should help remind all of us that just like electing Obama didn’t end racism, if we elect Clinton it’s not going to be the end of sexism. In fact, if Obama’s presidency is anything to go by, misogyny is going to come out into the open in a way we haven’t seen in a while.

Articles on Theology

This will probably become a more dominant category now that I’m in seminary. My theology reading tends to come from books, not articles, but anything that I read that’s not behind a paywall I’ll try to share with y’all.

I read “God is not Great; God is Good” by Alexis Waggoner right after Handsome and I had an intense debate about that very topic during small group a few weeks ago. I’ll probably explore this concept more in seminary, but I’m definitely leaning toward a deistic/open theism view of God. As someone who spent her life suffering abuse, the idea that God takes an active hand in world events … bothers me.

So I talk a lot about how the Old Testament treats gender identity, and “Is God Transgender?” by Rabbi Mark Sameth is a good introduction to the concept, I think.

Someone I know is going to be participating in The Courage Conference, and I encourage all of you to look into it and push your pastors and church staffs into attending, even if all they can do is watch online.

I do my best, when I’m reading about racism, to focus on reading work by men and women of color. However, “How God as Trinity Dissolves Racism” by Richard Rohr was really good. If I can find an article on the same topic written by a person of color, I’ll share that one down the road.

Articles on Politics

The alt-right is more than warmed-over white supremacy. It’s that, but way weirder” by Dylan Matthews was … interesting. I tend to cringe away from calling a white nationalist movement something bland and mild like “alt-right,” and I wish Clinton hadn’t used it. I understand why she didn’t, but this bandying around the bush just gives them credibility, in my opinion. However, like Dylan notes, it is more than just white supremacy.

I love meta analyses. When you really want to whip out some hard-hitting science, nothing beats a meta analysis. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s basically “a study of studies.” It looks over all the available, credible research on a given topic and tries to come to a more-firm conclusion than any of the independent studies could have arrived at on their own. “Parents have been spanking children for millennia. 50 years of scientific evidence said they were wrong” is primarily an interview with Elizabeth Gershoff, who compiled 75 studies and a combined data set of 161,000 children to say– as conclusively as possible– that spanking fucks everything up. To which I and every other spanking survivor say: no shit.

Books

I’ve been doing more movie-and-TV watching than book-reading this month, so I’ll just give you an update. I’m still reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong which continues to be fascinating. I’m also working through Kameron Hurley’s Geek Feminist Revolution. This weekend I picked up Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, but I haven’t touched it at all yet. I also got Good Christian Sex to review next month, and will be interviewing the author, Bromleigh McCleneghan. I’m also going to be reading God’s Feminist Movement in the next few weeks for another review. None of that counts for seminary reading, though, so I’ll probably still be working on most of these for a little while.

For fiction reading I’m digging into Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy and so far I’m enjoying it. Been a while since I’ve read a book written by a man about men, so we’ll see how it goes. If he includes more women characters than Karen Miller’s Kingmaker, Kingbreaker set, I might cry. So far we’ve got one minor character who’s a girl, and another two tangential characters that are women that I’m not sure we’ll see again … which is already beating out Karen’s complete and utter lack of women background characters. She almost made up for it in the last book with two lead women characters … almost.

I read Beautiful Creatures last week and it was … well, I really liked how well the author included elements of the Southern Gothic. I grew up in the kind of rural Southern community that makes up the cultural setting, and I think the authors did it well. There were a few moments that would have been better if they’d really embraced the creep but overall I enjoyed the feel of the book. The main character was a little shit, though, so I wasn’t interested in continuing the series.

Books that I’m looking forward to reading when I’m not inundated by seminary:

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik looks like it’s going to be brilliant. I was explaining the concept to Handsome, and I discovered that I know a shocking amount about the Napoleonic-era naval conflicts for how much I’m not interested in that. I’m also really fascinated by Last Song Before Night because of this article about her approach to worldbuilding. After a months-long search aided by r/tipofmytongue and r/fantasy– as well Peter Ahlstrom– I finally found the title for a book I’d been desperately wanting to read but couldn’t’ remember: The Paper Magician. Pretty sure I’m never going to forget the title of that book.

TV and Movies

Still watching Alias, still enjoying it– although, at this point, I’m really just watching it for Jack and in the hopes that Michael goes deliciously dark and murders his traitor double-agent wife. I discovered that there are two premises for this show: 1) everyone in it, with the exception of Jack Bristow, is actually a really fucking bad spy, and 2) everyone marries a Russian spy.

Discovery of the month: The Good Wife. I got into it because it aired between Elementary and Madam Secretary and I didn’t feel like getting up off the couch, so I’ve actually seen the last few episodes of the final season. Handsome was out of town on business last week, so I decided to download the first season to check it out and I am loving it. I haven’t enjoyed a show as much as this one in a while. Possibly since the first time I saw The West Wing. There’s a main character who’s a bi woman, and there have been a few times where I’ve squeed and started bouncing on the couch because yay. Although, to be honest, the fact that when Alicia asks her if she’s gay and her response is that she’s “private” I was a little bit meh about.

***

So what all have you been into?

Photo by Carmela Nava
Feminism

personally pro-life, politically pro-choice

I’m about as pro-choice as it’s possible to be. I’m unflinchingly pro-choice, even. There are no ifs, ands, or buts  in my approach to abortion, no caveats, no disclaimers. I am completely opposed to “late-term” abortion bans, TRAP laws, and any other restrictions on a person’s ability to conduct their own medical affairs. I believe that abortion should be treated no differently from any other medical procedure: it is safe– far safer than childbirth— and it is private.

However, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, this position is relatively recent– more recent, even, than where I was when I wrote the Ordeal of the Bitter Waters series over two years ago. My feminism is continuously evolving, and back when I wrote that series I was more uncomfortable with so-called “late-term” abortions than I am today. I’ve been evaluating and re-evaluating my stances on reproductive rights for almost eight years now, and I’ve arrived at a place that feels more drastic than a complete reversal should.

As an inexperienced and woefully uninformed young woman, I was fervently pro-life. I picketed clinics a handful of times; I canvassed neighborhoods trying to get TRAP laws put on my state’s ballot. I didn’t think there should be exceptions for rape and incest. Over time, however, circumstances forced me to confront what I believed about abortion, and I realized that my pro-life position was morally indefensible.

My theological and political background puts me in an interesting position, especially as I’ve been observing this election season– my first presidential election as a registered Democrat. My social media feeds are a sometimes-hilarious mix of extremes because some of my friends are Marxists, some are Libertarians, and at least two friends post almost nothing but pictures of guns. What’s becoming troubling to me is that we all seem to have forgotten the value– and governing necessity– of compromise, of embracing a spectrum of beliefs and positions in order to accomplish a good work.

I don’t think there’s anything that demonstrates how polarized we can be than abortion. This election season, it seems that tension has coalesced around Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine. He, like other Democratic men like Joe Biden, embrace a complicated position toward reproductive rights: personally opposed to abortion (a somewhat ridiculous position for a man to hold, I’ll admit), but still in support of abortion remaining legal and accessible.

This is where my perspective can seem a little bit wonky to some of my pro-choice friends and colleagues: I don’t have a problem with Clinton choosing Kaine as her running mate. He wasn’t who I was hoping for, but I think the reasoning for choosing him is logical and practical– two of the things I admire most about Clinton’s approach to politics.

I do have a problem with Kaine’s history. He supported abstinence-only education because he felt it would lower the abortion rate in Virginia, which flies in the face of common sense and well-established fact. He banned “partial birth” abortions, a ridiculous position that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of medical procedures. He used state funds to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which use deceptive, manipulative, and unethical tactics. Even though he’s seemed to have evolved on these positions, I understand the hesitancy many of my pro-choice colleagues are feeling.

However, as fervently pro-choice as I am and as much as I will fight to protect our reproductive rights, I can support Kaine for vice president because he embodies one of my most valued positions:

I will work with anyone,  even someone who’s pro-life, to advance reproductive justice.

I am absolutely for what some call “abortion on demand.” I am vocally in support of bodily autonomy being seen as a fundamental right. However, I am troubled by certain unfortunate realities surrounding reproductive care in this country because I am pro-choice. The US has a much higher abortion rate than many other developed nations, and I think that’s indicative of larger problems.

For example, for teenage girls who gave birth by fifteen, 39% of their partners were older than twenty. For girls who gave birth by seventeen, 53% of their partners were older than 20. There’s some nuance there, of course, but that research indicates that up to half of all teenage pregnancies are a result of rape. That, to me, highlights the gross and horrifying failure in sex education. The abstinence-only “purity” approach leaves people, especially girls, vulnerable to violence and abuse.

In a survey from 2004, a huge number of the people who responded— 73%– said they’d had abortions because they couldn’t afford to have a baby. There’s other reasons to have an abortion, obviously, but when three quarters of the people having an abortion cite their finances as the most important reason they needed an abortion, it means that there’s a definite lack of choice involved in their decision. That’s unfortunate, and upsetting. Abortion should be available without limits– you shouldn’t have to prove you have a “good enough” reason– but if they would have preferred to keep their pregnancy but can’t afford to, that’s a problem.

There are so many avenues to provide real choices. Reducing child care costs. Making reliable contraception widely available. Offering comprehensive education on reproductive health and consensual sex. All of those things are proven in reducing the abortion rate (as well as just being good ideas on their own), and this abortion-on-demand feminist thinks that’s an important enough goal that I’ll even work with Tim Kaine to ensure that people are free to make a true, unbounded, personal choice.

I don’t need ideological purity in the people I work with. I don’t need to agree with you on everything to try to get something accomplished. I don’t like litmus tests, and I abhor movements that are unwilling to bend in order to get the work done. If you’re personally pro-life, but think that decision is a personal one best left to a person and their doctor, we can shake on it.

If you’d like to know more about these pro-choice positions, I recommend Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich.

Photo by Toshiyuki
Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introducing Michael

Plot summary:

  • Michael sees Angel, God audibly speaks to him and says “This one, beloved.” (53)
  • He buys half an hour with her that night and proposes.
  • She refuses. She continues to refuse, over the next week, quite emphatically.
  • Michael argues with God, leaves town.
  • Angel decides she’s done working for Duchess, demands her wages.
  • Duchess has her beaten. Angel wants Bret Magowan to kill her, provokes him.

***

I’ve been reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong for a little bit. In the second chapter, she’s explaining the different ways the prophets described their deity, and I want to share what she says about Hosea:

It was only with hindsight that it seemed to Hosea that his marriage had been inspired by God. The loss of his wife had been a shattering experience, which gave Hosea an insight into the way Yahweh must feel when his people deserted him and went whoring after deities like Baal. At first Hosea was tempted to denounce Gomer and have nothing more to do with her: indeed, the law stipulated that a man must divorce an unfaithful wife. But Hosea still loved Gomer, and eventually he went after her and bought her back from her new master. He saw his own desire to win Gomer back as a sign that Yahweh was willing to give Israel another chance. …

Hosea saw Yahweh as a jilted husband, who still continued to feel a yearning tenderness for his wife. (48)

There’s a lot more there, and the surrounding argument about how the prophets were anthropomorphizing God is fascinating, but I wanted to highlight that section because it’s important to me to remember that the American evangelical way of interpreting the Bible is far from the only way, or the “right” way. We’ll see Francine’s acceptance of their interpretation of Hosea pop up for the first time here, and I would like us to spend time separating what conservatives say about Hosea and what Hosea might actually have to say for himself.

It’s ok to find Hosea’s story troubling. You can’t remove the man from his culture, and his account is an excellent example of this. However, I do think it’s both possible and necessary for us to wrestle with the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable, especially when that discomfort is a sign of conscience.

When Michael finds out who Angel is, he “felt as though he had been kicked low and hard” (so, in the balls), and then says to God “Lord? Did I misunderstand? I must’ve. This can’t be the one” (54). Francine is projecting modern Christian attitudes about prostitutes back onto an 1850s man, because as I’ve mentioned before that wouldn’t have been a big deal at the time. However, it’s important that Michael be repulsed by the ideal of marrying a “soiled dove” for theological reasons: according to the common conservative presentation of Hosea, women like Gomer/Angel/Nation of Israel are disgusting. They’re disgusting like all born sinners are disgusting, really, but Francine really wants to nail the message home through using Michael to voice her whorephobia.

However, if we looked at Hosea with an alternate lens, we could reject the whorephobia in the narrative– which, honestly, is only one chapter out of a fourteen-chapter-long oracle– and look for the compassion that’s woven into the rest of the text. A lot of the anger Hosea feels is directed toward the “Johns” of the ancient world– the people who exploit and oppress and abuse. After he buys Gomer back there’s no brimstone directed toward her or their children. The story conveys a sense of justice– the people who were abused and neglected will be restored.

But, that emphasis on compassion is not theologically relevant to Francine. The typical evangelical desire is to convince everyone that we’re disgusting sinners in need of God, and that’s what Francine needs Angel to understand– that she’s a disgusting whore in need of Michael’s saving grace. Francine beats us over the head again and again with all the times that Angel has “failed” at saving herself through these chapters until she ultimately gives up and decides to provoke Bret into beating her to death (93).

The biggest problem with Francine’s characterization of Michael– and therefore Hosea, ergo God themself– is that ignoring consent is an essential facet of both Micheal and God’s character. At the end of Michael’s opening scene, there’s this line: “But he knew he was going to marry that girl anyway” (56). There’s no if she’ll have me anywhere– not there, not in the next three chapters. At one point God tells him to “Go back and get Angel.” Get her. Not “try to convince her again, I’ll soften her heart for you this time.” None of that, nothing resembling consent. Just abduction.

What Angel wants is irrelevant to both God and Michael. What she wants to be called (64). That she doesn’t want to leave (67). He tells her that she “doesn’t know anything about” him (67) and rejects her stereotypes of “men,” but then makes a stereotypical assumption about her (that he “wants what you don’t even know you have to give”) and it’s not a problem for him to override her own sense of personhood (68). Her life choices “became my business the minute I saw you” (77). When God orders him to abduct her, and he refuses, it’s not because abduction would be wrong, or that he doesn’t want to do something to Angel that she doesn’t want, it’s because “The last think I want or need is a woman who doesn’t feel a thing” (80).

***

All through these two chapters, Francine is painting a deliberate picture of Angel’s resistance. This section of the book is called Defiance, and it’s supposed to parallel an evangelical narrative about conversion: God draws people to him that don’t understand that they need him. They want to stay in their sin (the Palace), they don’t want to accept help or a way out that they didn’t make themselves (marry Michael).

Angel is being stubborn. Michael has given her plenty of opportunities to show her that he’s actually a decent human being. Speaking of, the fact that Francine thinks that Angel could tell at this point that Michael is “not like” (sarcasm quotes there) Duke, or Johnny, or Bret … it’s disturbing. All Michael has done at this point is be an arrogant, irritating man with a frightening temper (76-78), but the subtext to all of Angel’s thoughts is “why don’t I want to accept his help?” which she wonders openly at several points. The answer: again, she’s a disgusting sinner who doesn’t know she needs God/Michael.

A few last notes: there’s some horrific fatphobia here, with Francine describing Duchess using terms like “rolls of flesh,” “puffy cheeks,” a comment about a second chin, and then calling all of that “obscene” right before Duchess orders Bret to beat Angel (89). Yaaaaay. Also, she’s a terrible writer. She freely flouts the old “show, don’t tell” rule, and switches being narrators sometimes in the same sentence. There’s no definite point of view– it’s not a true third-person narrator, and we’re jumping in and out of people’s heads, getting the inner thoughts of basically every character, not just Angel and Hosea.

Bonus prediction: Francine’s going to take Old Testament passages that refer specifically to Israel and apply them directly to Michael and America, the Christian Nation.

Uncategorized

Announcements!

Y’all might have noticed that over the past few months I’ve made the occasional reference to applying for seminary. I first thought about the idea I think almost two years ago now, and spent a lot of time researching options. I tried to apply to a few places, but kept bumping into a few roadblocks– namely, the fact that my undergraduate degree is unaccredited. Most of the seminaries I wanted to apply at wouldn’t even consider me. Some that would, like Calvin or Fuller, where just … a little too conservative.

But, in January I found out about United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities when I was at the Gay Christian Network conference. I explained my situation to the spokesperson there, and he gave me the Director of Admission’s number directly so I could talk about it with him. Our phone conversation was promising– he understood where I was coming from, and he said I could apply without worrying that my lack-of-an-accredited-degree would affect me.

Well, last week, I was admitted!

Starting September 1st, I will be a student again. It’s exciting and terrifying, but I’m happy and grateful. I’m looking at course lists and the like, and seeing possible course offerings such as Comparative Religious Bioethics is tickling me silly. I’ll be pursuing the Social Transformation concentration, and I think it’s going to be fantastic. I’m not sure what my course load is going to look like over the next few years– I think I’m going to start out with two courses at a time and see what happens.

There’s also another thing being added to my plate: for the next few months my workload at the bookstore is basically doubling. Not to unmanageable levels, and overall I’m happy about it, but between seminary, managing a bookstore, dealing with all the travel I’ll be doing, and trying to make sure my fibromyalgia doesn’t wipe me out, the one thing that’s going to have to give  is the blog.

I’m going to keep up the Redeeming Love review– I’ll have a post up today, in fact– and I might write a few posts when I can, but the schedule is probably going to be a little bit inconsistent until I figure out what life is going to be like and my schedule returns to normal at the bookstore. It’s possible the papers I’ll be writing for seminary classes can be recycled into blog posts– let me know if you’d be interested in seeing those!

Anyway, I’m very excited to be stepping into this new chapter. Hopefully it’s a good one.

Photo by Funca
Feminism

what hast thou wrought: Christians and Trump

I’ve read a lot of articles about Donald Trump. If you look at my last “stuff I’ve been into” post, there’s about a half-dozen articles on him that represents the best-of-the-best of my reading on the subject. I’ve got a lot of angry-and/or-panicking friends on social media, so I’m inundated with quite a bit of material that represent a gamut of positions. My friends range from hard right, center-right, center-left, and hard-hard-hard-hard-left, and one of the biggest conversation topics shared among all these groups is this question:

How can Christians be voting for him?

I’ve already explained why I think Christians shouldn’t be voting for Trump, but now I’d like to take a stab at why Christians– namely white evangelicals– are supporting him in even greater numbers than they supported Romney. There’s been multitudes of ink spilled attempting to answer this, and the obvious answer is white supremacy. Evangelicals exist as a voting bloc because of racism. Trump with all of his flagrant racism is calling to one of the most basic motivations of the evangelical movement, and we ignore this to our detriment. Another obvious answer is misogyny. He embodies everything wrong with masculinity in American culture– braggadocio, chauvinism, narcissism, anger, insecurity– but it’s appealing to those among us who see powerful women and feminism as an innate threat to their manhood or their sense of social order.

The internet is filled to the brim with articles covering all those reasons, as well as plenty of articles pointing out all the ways that Trump’s actions, history, and proposed policies are antithetical to everything Christians have been saying they expect in a presidential candidate for decades. Like having family values. Or being a Christian. So, a lot of my friends are confused: how is this possible? On top of the fore-mentioned white supremacy and misogyny that are integral to evangelical culture, I’d like to highlight two more elements that make supporting Trump a foregone conclusion for so many evangelicals.

Abortion

Yes, this is also obvious. Wayne Grudem even included Trump’s supposed pro-life platform as a part of his argument for why Trump is a “morally good choice.” What’s been confusing to many of my friends is that Trump’s “pro-life” position is recent and possibly a lie, so how can evangelicals be staking an election on something they can’t possibly be sure of?

The answer is simple: Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, and will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Trump, while perhaps not personally pro-life, will most likely appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

They have to take that chance. They have to because being anti-abortion is all they’ve got. Modern evangelicals and other conservative Christians aren’t, by and large, holistically pro-life in the sense that they consider human life sacred and inestimably valuable. They’re pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-healthcare, against policies that could end starvation and hunger, anti-gun control, and many even believe that parents should have the right to murder their children once they’re not, y’know, fetuses. They’re not pro-life in any meaningful way, but they are anti-abortion and pro-birth, and holding onto that position makes them incredibly powerful.

With their stance of being a single-issue voter in their back pocket, they control elections. They get to say who stays and who goes, who gets power and who doesn’t, all through this one platform: overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s the Southern Strategy reborn, and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to let go of this, no matter how deep into the muck and slime and mire they have to go to justify it. They’ve staked their soul on this ground. This is the line in the sand they’ve drawn.

Granted, there are plenty of anti-abortion Christians who aren’t being cynical and hypocritical about this. Their theological system simply cannot let them back down from this political position, because if they were to accept the concept that private faith and public life aren’t necessarily eternally bonded concepts, a lot of other things start unraveling. Or, if they were to shift their thinking about abortion from a biblical perspective, the whole house of cards might come crashing down. They can’t afford to question this, because questioning their stance on abortion means questioning everything. It means reassessing their identity, their character, their morality. It means re-examining almost everything they’ve ever done and said to women, to children, to their LGBT brothers and sisters … to orphans and widows and prisoners.

I’ve done it. It’s painful. Too painful, possibly, for many.

Redemption

The one element that I haven’t seen anyone talking about is the redemption narrative intrinsic to the evangelical faith system. To many of my friends and colleagues, it’s inconceivable that Christians could look at Trump– a man who sexually abused his wife, who raped a child, who harasses women with impunity, who sent Hillary Clinton a death threat— and think yes, this man represents my Christian values. How could James Dobson say he’s “tender to things of the spirit” or Jerry Falwell claim that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” much less do so with a straight face? This man is an abominable monster, and yet Christians are flocking to him. How can this be?

The answer is in two parts. First, “Creation, Fall, Redemption” is essential to understanding the evangelical viewpoint. Mankind fell into sin in the Garden, but Jesus promises us redemption and ultimately resurrection. To them, this narrative is woven into Scripture from beginning to end, and our lives reflect this pattern, this Truth about reality. We are born Fallen but can be Redeemed no matter what, no matter when.

Trump can’t be excepted from this narrative. He’s a fallen sinner, just like the rest of us, and God can redeem him, too. The fact that he’s converting to conservative Christian-style politics is a checkmark in his favor– in a culture where religion and nationalism are horribly mixed, Trump’s promises for “Christians to be powerful again” ring true in their ears. In this only-Republicans-are-really-Christians climate, it’s the only “spiritual fruit” they need. To those who believe that We Are a Christian Nation, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” speaks to their dominionist, theocratic vision for their country.

Secondly… I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

Yes, Trump is a child rapist. Yes, Trump abused his wife, making her feel “violated.” Yes, Trump has harassed and attacked multiple women. Yes, yes, yes. But if you look around Christian culture, it’s populated by people exactly like him.

Joshua Duggar attacks his sisters and girls from his church, and it’s written off as “normal.” Bill Gothard sexually abuses teenage girls for decades and he’s still the head of a thriving ministry. Pope Francis has participated in a horrific and disgusting cover-up of child sexual abuse, and he even lands a cover on the AdvocatePastors, youth pastors, evangelists, missionaries, priests– they can rape women, men, children, and it doesn’t matter. They’re protected, even given positions of power. They can rape children, be convicted and sent to prison, and still get to write feature articles for Christian leadership magazines. Their churches and missionary boards will cover it up and shelter them.

Christian culture is a haven for abusers.

It’s a shelter for rapists and molesters because of the redemption narrative they cling to. If a rapist or abuser says “I’m sorry, I’ve repented,” anyone who questions that is harshly censored. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because he enjoyed watching people rape children, she’s censored by her church and shunned. Or if your husband “repents” of sexually abusing a child for years, you’ll be the one seen as “breaking your marriage vows” if you decide to leave him. Even if he’s abusing you, according to John Piper you’re just supposed to stick it out. After all, if you listen to Debi Pearl, maybe if he beats you long enough you’ll bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. Or, maybe Debi Pearl’s too extreme for you– how about Lori Wick, one of the most popular Christian fiction authors?

This is why Trump is succeeding so well among evangelical voters. He’s an abuser, but now he’s converted to their nationalistic, dominionist, theocratic, white supremacist and misogynistic faith, and through that has been Redeemed.

He fits right in.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Angel’s backstory

For this review series I’ve decided to split Redeeming Love into twelve sections, around forty pages each, instead of splitting it up by chapters– since the chapters all have varied lengths. Today’s post covers the prologue and the first chapter, which gives us Angel’s backstory. To make things a little easier for those of you who haven’t read the book at all, or in a while, I’ll give plot summaries at the beginning of each post before digging into the themes and imagery I’d like to discuss.

  • Mae, her mother, is a mistress.
  • Alex, her father, paid for Mae to have an abortion, but she refused because of her Catholicism.
  • Sarah/Angel overhears her father saying how her existence ruined both their lives.
  • Mae sends Sarah/Angel away with Cleo, the nanny, to have a weekend with Alex without Sarah/Angel present.
  • Alex stops supporting Mae and Sarah/Angel; Mae tries to return to her parents, but is refused.
  • Eventually, Mae becomes a prostitute. Falls ill and dies.
  • Rab, Mae’s love interest at the time, sells Sarah/Angel to “Duke” and is murdered in front of her.
  • Duke renames Sarah “Angel.” Rapes her.
  • Angel, at eighteen, goes to California; she’s mugged by the other prostitutes on the boat.
  • Meets Duchess, moves to Pair-a-Dice with Duchess as her madam.

If you read over some of the negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, you’ll notice that there’s a fair number of people who found the dark opening to the book incredibly off-putting and somehow an ungodly thing to read about. The sort of person leaving that review is probably coming from a similar background as my childhood: Philippians 4:8 was our guidepost for all our entertainment decisions, and the opening to Redeeming Love probably doesn’t qualify as something “pure” or “lovely.”

In that sense, I’m somewhat grateful that Francine was willing to explore something dark in her book. Christian culture has a tendency to sugarcoat reality, and it drives me nuts– so at least here that’s not happening. While Angel’s backstory is probably darker than her average 1850s counterpart, it doesn’t stretch the bounds of credulity even by today’s standards.

The particular situation that Francine sets up for both Mae and Angel is a particular form of sexual abuse: it’s called survival sex and can appear both inside and outside prostitution. Many of the people who enter sex work– both today and in the 1850s– did so out of extreme duress. Like with Mae’s character, they considered it a “last resort,” but eventually circumstances deprived them of other viable options. However, it is extremely important to note that people can be forced into survival sex and not be prostitutes. I’ve known several women over the years who had sex with their significant others for no other reason than that if they refused they’d be homeless and starving. Survival sex is coerced sex, and y’all know my feelings on that subject.

A common myth about prostitution– one perpetually reinforced by every Christian anti-sex-trafficking organization I’ve encountered– is that all prostitutes are engaging in survival sex, or were forced into it as a form of slavery. There’s this belief that only incredibly desperate people would enter sex work ‘voluntarily’ … which is not the case. I’d also like to highlight that Mae was having survival sex with Alex long before Francine started describing her as a prostitute– her house and their food would only be provided as long as she was capable of satisfying Alex’s lust.

There are some historical details that Francine is getting right about prostitution during the California Gold Rush, like a Chinese woman being the only one of Duchess’ prostitutes who is there as an actual slave, but I’m already sensing some anachronistic over-writing. Due to the scarcity of women in California at the time, there wasn’t a lot of social stigma surrounding prostitution in places like Pair-a-Dice; but, given what I know about some of the events that happen later on, I don’t think Francine is going to stay true to that.

Getting into the details, though, there is one particular scene worth highlighting:

[Cleo] pushed him away. He reached for her again, and she dodged him–but even Sarah could tell the effort was half-hearted. How could Cleo let this man near her? …

Merrick caught hold of her and kissed her. Cleo struggled, trying to pull away, but he held her tightly. When she relaxed against him, he drew back enough to say “More than that’s [the sea] in your blood.”

“Merrick, don’t. She’s watching–”

“So what?”

He kissed her again, and she fought him this time. Sarah sat frozen in fear. Maybe he would just kill them both.

“No! Cleo said angrily. “Get out of here. I can’t do this. I’m supposed to be taking care of her.” (28)

Merrick than tosses Sarah/Angel out into the hallway with strict orders to stay there or he’ll cut her up and feed her to the crabs, and him and Cleo “have sex.” Then we get this:

She stretched out her hand, but Merrick was gone. It was like him. She wasn’t going to worry about it now. After last night, how could he deny he loved her? (29) …

She put Sarah to bed early and went back down to the bar, hoping he would come in later. He didn’t. She stayed a little longer, laughing with other men and pretending she didn’t care … She hated him for breaking her heart again. She had let him do it to her so many times before. When would she learn to say no to him? Why had she come back? She should’ve known what would happen, would always happen. (30)

This scene bothers me because men like Merrick who laugh at women who are actively fighting them are going to get what they want regardless of whether or not she gives her consent. It does seem that Cleo wanted to have sex with Merrick and stopped resisting once he’d thrown Sarah out into the hall … but the fact that her consent was inconsequential to Merrick in this scene isn’t a part of the tension. She only gets mad at Merrick the next evening when he doesn’t show up at the bar, and the fact that he’s probably overridden her objections in the past isn’t a part of the speech she gives Sarah.

Then there’s the line that Francine puts in Sarah’s head: how could Cleo let this man near her? Considering that she’s spent five whole pages of a 34-page prologue doing nothing but establishing how frightening a figure Merrick is, that thought jumps out to me as decidedly out of place. It’s clear that Sarah is terrified of Merrick, is doing everything he says because he’s threatened to cut out her tongue out and kill her, and is also convinced that he’d kill Cleo, too. That doesn’t jive with “how could Cleo let this man near her?”

I think that particular line is Francine slut-shaming Cleo. It’s not a part of Sarah/Angel’s character, and it does nothing for the plot. It’s authorial manipulation, trying to get us to see Cleo the way Francine sees Cleo. We’re also supposed to see the lecture she delivers through this slut-shaming light: Cleo’s problem isn’t that men are truly terrible, it’s her bad decision making.

I think this is going to play out in Angel’s storyline. At the end of the prologue we get this:

He smiled again as he removed his tie and slowly began to unbutton his shirt.

And by morning, Sarah knew that Cleo had told her God’s truth about everything. (44)

… which shows up in the first chapter as a baseline for how Angel views the world. Cleo had told her the truth about the world, about men … but the reader is supposed to see Cleo’s “truth” as being born of her sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions. The book is, after all, titled Redeeming Love, and it’s going to be Angel’s future sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions that she’s going to need God’s grace and redemption for.

Bonus prediction: Francine is going to juxtapose Mae’s Catholicism with an anachronistically-evangelistic Protestantism at some point, and illustrate that the Catholic faith is inherently lacking and deficient.

Feminism

a new normal: the aftermath of recovery

[content note: trauma, recovery, PTSD]

I’m almost twenty-nine years old. For fourteen years, around half my life, I experienced abuse in various ways. I was physically abused as a child and teenager. I spent my teen years in a spiritually abusive church where I was emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused by almost every significant adult in my life. I was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager. As an adult I was in an abusive intimate relationship– the emotional and verbal abuse was intensified, and sexual assault and rape became the backdrop to my life. I went to a fundamentalist Christian “college,” where the spiritual abuse continued.

I didn’t escape abusive environments or relationships until I was twenty-three. I’ve been out for almost six years, but didn’t really start attempting to work through everything until four years ago, and I didn’t start making any real progress until two years ago. The healing process is slow, and sometimes excruciating. One of the counselors I went to a few times– the one who told me I was a “poisoned well” and I shouldn’t consider dating Handsome— said that healing would be like “unkinking a hose,” and a more understated metaphor I’ve yet to find.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people with stories like mine. For many of my friends, peers, and colleagues, we spend a lot of time looking for help, looking for things to help our lives make sense. In that search, I’ve frequently bumped into books, lectures, seminars, tapes, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc, that all talk about healing from abuse and trauma. The problem I’ve encountered is that many of those things aren’t honest about what this process looks like.

They’re not deceptive, by and large, but they do tend to leave one with the impression that healing is a gradual slope upward, and that it leads to peace and recovery. They paint a hopeful picture filled with grace, compassion, and love– and to be perfectly honest, I think those sorts of resources are needful.

But, when I’m looking in the eyes of one of my dearest friends who feels utterly lost and confused because “hasn’t it been long enough? Shouldn’t I be better than this?”– or other women who are beating themselves up one side and down the other because they “don’t want to be a victim,” and they want to “move on” … I have to look at them and say that

I don’t think better looks like other people’s “normal.” I don’t think you can move on.

Better looks like me cleaning out my bathtub. A fleck of mold got on my hand, and I started screaming. Handsome came into the bathroom to find me curled up in the fetal position with my hand stretched out as far away as I could get it. He carried me out of the bathroom and washed my hand for me in our kitchen sink while I sobbed, then tucked me into bed and cuddled with me for an hour before I could even talk.

Better looks like me washing my hair before every road trip and packing dry shampoo. It looks like me standing in the shower at a hotel, shaking and trying not to scream when the shower curtain touches me, while Handsome washes my body and I keep my eyes screwed tight trying to pretend that we’re at home.

Better looks like Handsome and I getting ready for bed, and he takes off his belt and folds it in half to he can hang it up– and I jump away from him and cringe. I don’t know what, but something about his hand movements has my body convinced that I’m about to be hit. He’s never even remotely done anything that could make me think he’d ever hurt me– not with his words, not with his hands. But it doesn’t matter. I jump away from belts.

Better looks like me turning off the subwoofer during Jurassic World because the throbbing bass makes my chest hurt and my anxiety spike.

Better looks like me searching all over my house desperately searching for my cat during my Fourth of July barbecue because as much as I know that she’s afraid of the outdoors and wouldn’t have run away while the door was open, I also know that I won’t be able to convince JerkBrain that she’s ok and still home until I see her for myself.

Better looks like reminding myself to eat even when I’m sick, even when I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. It looks like me playing Farm Heroes Super Saga while I chew and swallow the meatloaf for dinner last night while I try not to think about what I’m doing– hoping I’ll manage to clean my plate this time. It looks like taking small portions when I’m out with family so they won’t ask questions.

Better looks like a nightstand crowded with meds that I take, every day, even though every time I swallow the miracle that makes my days survivable a sliver of myself whispers that if I were a better, more consistent, more hardworking person, I wouldn’t really need them.

Better looks like getting toward the end of the day and telling Handsome “I can’t make any more decisions.” I can’t decide what I want to do, what show I want to watch, what game I want to play, what book I want to read, what snack I want to eat, what blanket I want to cover my legs … so he makes all those choices for me because he cares about me.

Better looks like being thankful for flexeril because I don’t seem to have night terrors anymore, at least not that I can remember. I can’t remember nightmares, and I’ve never been so thankful that I don’t have to relive my rapes once or twice a week any longer.

Better looks like fighting with JerkBrain every workshift because I know that my body needs me to be gentle with it, that working my fingers to the bone does not determine my value and worth as a person. It looks like reminding myself that my employer finds my contributions substantive meaningful, even though I have fibromyalgia.

Better looks like nearly jumping out of my skin every time I see someone who looks my rapist at an airport or national monument because as much as I know that the chances are vanishingly small that I’d actually bump into him anywhere, I can’t shake the idea that maybe just maybe he decided to fly somewhere at Christmas that would take him through that airport.

***

I’ve been afraid to paint this particular portrait of my life because I don’t want to be discouraging. What suffering person wants to be told some of this might be forever? I know all those studies that talk about the long-term consequences of child abuse aren’t exactly uplifting. My brain is fundamentally different because of the beatings I’ve received, because of the times he raped me, because of the hellfire sermons I had imprinted into my bones. I have PTSD, I’m an abuse and rape victim, and those realities aren’t ever going away.

This does look better though. It does. Not better looks like me drinking myself into numbness for three days straight and blaring rock music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Not better looks like a panic attack making me vomit in a school hallway. Not better looks like not being able to have sex with my partner. Not better looks like waking up screaming.

I am getting better. I’m not the somewhat-terrifying ball of rage I was a few years ago. Some wounds don’t bleed anymore, some scars have faded. I’m genuinely happier, more content, more at peace. But a large part of why my life is so blissful– and I do often think of it that way– is due to the accommodations I’ve made. I take medications. I play smartphone games to distract me from my anxiety and pain. I spent a ridiculous sum of money on my cat, who we nicknamed “Anxiety Sponge” because holding her makes something in my chest unlock. I walk away from my computer and my phone on the weekends and read fantasy books voraciously.

Healing, in many ways, looks like learning to cope. It means finding crutches and using them. I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, that I can’t meet an impossible standard. I’m never going to be like someone who wasn’t abused for fourteen years.

We got a little beat up by people, by life. If there’s one thing I want every survivor to know, it’s that your hurts are real, and they deserve to be treated. Maybe that means surgery, or walking with a cane, or cortisone injections, or whatever you find that works. Find what works and do it. Maybe, like me, it means smartphone games, taking Xanax with you everywhere, and packing dry shampoo so you don’t have to wash your hair in a strange place.

Whatever it is, it’s ok.

Photo by Mitya Ku