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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
Social Issues

Living in the Loopholes: Home Education and Abuse

As y’all know, I spent this past weekend in Raleigh, NC presenting at The Courage Conference with my friend and colleague Carmen Green. Preparing for that took a lot more out of me than I thought it would– we both wanted to emphasize story telling instead of getting deep into the weeds on the facts and legalities, so I spent the bulk of last week digging through the Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database looking for stories that illustrated each type of abuse we wanted to talk about. That took a toll, and then the conference was also emotionally draining. It was a good experience and I’m very glad I went, but the focus was on abuse and two days of that is just going to be hard.

I was looking forward to meeting Boz Tchividjian, who founded Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and whose work I’ve talked a lot about. He was as incredible in person as I thought he’d be, and it was comforting to meet an older white man who actually gives a shit and is actively doing something to fight abuse in Christian culture. I also got to meet Linda Kay Klein, who is as impressive in person as she sounds on paper. She has a book on purity culture coming out next year (Man-Made Girls) and I’m now desperate to read it. The second I have a copy, I will be posting a review. Her talk on the modesty doctrine was funny and insightful and tender and beautiful, and I was definitely impressed with her.

You can still actually “attend” The Courage Conference if you’d like to– you can buy online tickets to see video recordings of the main speakers, and I think it’s worth the $20. Also, in coordination with The Courage Conference, I’ve made it possible for you to see the workshop Carmen and I did. If you make at least a $5 donation to my Patreon this month, I will contact you with a password to view the video after Patreon processes everyone’s transactions.

Also, here’s the PowerPoint presentation if you’d like to take a look at it.

Many thanks to everyone here who made presenting at this conference possible. Your readership and support over the years is why I continue doing this sort of work. The workshop we gave seemed to make a really big impact with the people who came– many said they’d learned a ton that they could instantly put to practical use to fight abuse. You made it possible for us to do that, so thank you.

Social Issues

The Courage Conference: Homeschooling & Abuse

I mentioned this in passing a bit ago, but wanted to take some time to really give this the attention it deserves. I will be presenting at The Courage Conference in Raleigh, NC on October 20-21. Here’s the description of the conference from the website:

The Courage Conference is a non-denominational event that will offer a judgement-free place for survivors of abuse (and those who love them) to gather and hear inspiring stories from other survivors about moving forward in boldness and healing. The event will also educate pastors and church leaders on the topic of abuse and introduce them to safe practices and resources for their faith community. The Courage Conference offers a unique opportunity to hear from advocates and trained professionals through inspiring keynotes talks, Q&A sessions and workshops in addition to connecting attendees with local and national resources, so you don’t have to do this alone.

I’m excited about the lineup of speakers, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk about a topic I think is not well understood. Abuse in homeschooling environments can be so headline-grabbing (children locked in closets and starved to death, chopped up and stored in freezers for years, beaten to death) that most news outlets seem to get pretty myopic. While all of those happen and definitely deserve to be addressed as the atrocities they are, the focus on what are, in actuality, a handful of cases out of millions of homeschooled children lets homeschoolers who are abusive in much more mundane ways escape notice. People can say “we’re nothing like that” or “I don’t know anyone like that” and then dismiss the need to examine their communities for the ways it might enable abuse.

These communities end up fighting any kind of oversight and frequently use the sometimes-myopic treatment of the press as a way to cry persecution. Why should they be punished with regulations and oversight because someone somewhere did something unspeakably awful? It happens again and again in the conversations I find myself in about homeschooling and the need for oversight. We end up talking past each other– they think I’m thinking of Lydia Schatz when I’m talking about my own experience and how every single child I knew in my homeschooling communities were physically abused. Not locked in closets, not starved, not murdered, but still very much abused. They feel comfortable with “self-regulation” because no one they know is an axe-wielding child murderer, and they get to ignore the other forms of abuse that may not be obvious to them.

My presentation, which I’ll be giving with Carmen Green who’s founded the Center for Home Education Policy and who you can read about here (I was background research for that article, btw), will be going over all of that for about an hour. What does abuse in homeschools actually tend to look like, and what can we do about it?

Anyway, if you can make it to Raleigh, NC in two weeks I hope to see you there. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass along the website. The conference still needs some funding, too. I appreciate that the organizers are trying to make this as affordable as possible, so maybe if you think educating religious leaders on abuse, trauma, and how to help is important, throw a few dollars their way?

Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: summer edition

As y’all know, I took the summer off from seminary in order to try to better manage my time and prepare for the fall. I was able to wrap up one big project I’ve been working on since February, and my other responsibilities have settled down some so they’re not as overwhelming. I was even able to officiate a wedding for the first time (and shoutout to Emmy Kegler and Nicholas Tangen for helping me prepare for that). Seminary starts back up in September, and I’m taking a class I’m especially excited about: “Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist and Queer Approaches to the Bible.” Doesn’t that sound just gob-smacking amazing?

I’m going to be incredibly busy from now until the end of the year, though. I’ll be traveling once or twice a month from now until December, which is daunting although it’s mostly for fun things like weddings. I’ll also be giving a workshop at The Courage Conference on how to appropriately respond to abuse occurring in homeschooling environments, which I’m over-the-moon about. I’d encourage anyone who attends a traditional church to ask their pastors to come, since I believe it provides a necessary corrective for the lack of training pastors typically receive on how to respond to trauma and abuse.

Politics

As one can imagine, a lot of my reading this summer has been about politics. I’m sure the same is true for most of you, so I’m going to do my best to only share pieces I think didn’t get widespread attention.

First, something at least somewhat positive: “A Conservative Christian College Protest of Mike Pence” by Molly Wicker. Being an alumni of Liberty University is absolutely humiliating right now, but at least support for this administration isn’t ubiquitous at similar colleges.

One of the most frustrating things about the last eight months has been the fact that my disabilities prevent me from getting involved the way I want. The fact that some activist orgs almost actively bar my participation … it’s a little more that just frustrating. “On Disability and Emotional Labor” by S.E. Smith captures a lot of my feelings.

This one is older, but it’s stuck with me ever since I read it. “Fairytale Prisoner by Choice: The Photographic Eye of Melania Trump” by Kate Imbach was unsettling, but offered such an interesting perspective.

Another excellent resource: “By Any Other Name: The Power of Loaded Language in Christofascism” by Kieryn Darkwater gives amazing clarity to things that are obvious to anyone who grew up in Christian fundamentalism but might seem innocuous to those not “in the know.”

Race

The Struggles of Writing About Chines Food as a Chinese Person” by Clarissa Wei offers a lot of insight to an area that I don’t think white people consider all that often. I think a lot of progressives understand things like police brutality or other failures of our justice and immigration systems as problems, but there’s so many other insidious things happening that we need to learn to pay attention to.

Feminism

I don’t know how to sum up “Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus: A Brief History” by Terri Kapsalis, but it was fascinating and oh-so-incredibly-relevant.

Biology is one of my great loves, so I’ve read this article multiple times and haven’t been able to shut up about it. “War in the Womb” by Suzanne Sadedin was an excellent presentation of a biological reality – fetus and pregnant person are at odds– and I think a wider awareness of this could be critically important in helping adjust our views of pregnancy and reproductive justice.

I Don’t Accommodate Uncontrolled Men” by Bailey Bergmann took the “I think better of men” argument against modesty culture and made it better.

Theology

Many of us grew up with the assumption that there is only one way to understand Christ’s work on the Cross. Sometime in or around graduate school I found out that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is only one theory among several. “A Thoroughly Biblical Argument Against Penal Substitutionary Atonement” by Emma Higgs is a good introduction and resource in case you wanted one.

The Defenders of Slavery Taught Us How to Bible” is one of many articles by Fred Clark that explains the link – and by link I mean “foundation of the whole damn thing” – between white supremacy and American evangelicalism.

Film & TV

I’m very happily re-watching Stargate SG-1 with Handsome at the moment and it’s just as delightful as it ever was. The overarching theme of the show is “we never leave a man behind!” and that is a message I think we should all hear more consistently.

We cancelled our Netflix subscription in exchange for Hulu so we could watch SG-1, but we’ll be going back to Netflix this month in order to bingewatch The Defenders, and when we do I’ll be back on my House of Cards marathon. Netflix has been telling me to watch it for months and each time I was all eehhhhhh but then I watched it and holy smokes I’m hooked. Frank Underwood is Eli Gold from The Good Wife, only … a lot more ruthless, and it’s amazing to watch. I’m mystified by why I’m getting such a kick out of watching Frank and Claire Underwood, but I am. I’m still in season two, so no spoilers. I know nothing about what happens, somehow, and I’d like to keep it that way.

Who else is excited about The Defenders and Stark Trek: Discovery? A lot of the build-up to Discovery has left me underwhelmed, but the most recent trailer finally started getting me excited. I just really, really want them not to blow it.

Watched Arrival a few weeks ago and that was incredible. It captured an element that’s been missing from any other “first encounter” movie I’ve seen—a sense of realism, a tension between pessimism and hope. It was a sci-fi movie that made me feel things, and I loved it.

I’ve been looking forward to Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, and it was brilliant. Kate Beckinsale absolutely nailed it, and I think it’s one of the best Austen adaptations around.

Assasin’s Creed is one of my favorite video game franchises, so I gave the movie a shot. It was about what I was expecting. Fun, but wow the plot holes. I was also disappointed by John Wick: Chapter 2. I adored the first John Wick movie, but the sequel really did not stand up. By the end I was just incredibly bored—and it didn’t have what I liked so much about the original, which was the fact that John Wick was basically perfect. He didn’t make mistakes. The fact that Chapter 2 ends with a colossal mistake that ruins his life and it was completely and totally avoidable… ugh. I felt cheated.

Books

I’ve been playing more Elder Scrolls Online than I’ve been reading books, but since it’s essentially just playing through an epic fantasy novel I think it counts.

I re-read A Wrinkle in Time this summer, and if you haven’t read it at all or in a while, I recommend that you read it now. It’s short—I read it in two hours—but so beautiful and uplifting and encouraging and can we talk about the film adaptation because I cried tears of joy when the trailer released.

I didn’t expect to like The Queen’s Fool by Phillipa Gregory, but it surprised me. It’s about a young Jewish woman who flees the Spanish Inquisition with her father and then ends up serving in the courts of Mary and Elizabeth—and it was a satisfying reading experience. If you like historical fiction, this one is a solid choice. I liked it enough to get Lady of the Rivers, which was also enjoyable.

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is better than a lot of the YA fantasy that’s out there. Victorian England is not usually my cup of tea as far as setting goes, but it’s got a lot to offer and the queer romantic tension flying around in the midst of literally Patriarchal conspiracies speaks to me.

Handsome and I are reading Mort by Terry Pratchett together, and if you’ve never had the chance to read a Pratchett story out loud to someone, you should. They are meant to be read aloud.

I just finished Kristen Britain’s Green Rider and … it is perhaps a particularly frustrating example of the clichés and tropes in fantasy writing. The ending did not feel earned, and seemed to just slog on forever. It’s ostensibly a Hero’s Journey, except the main character doesn’t seem to be transformed by her experiences at all and she overcomes every trial with a patently obvious deus ex machina. Not the best book I’ve ever read, but I finished it—which says something.

I picked up the first two volumes of The Sharing Knife by Lois McMaster Bujold at the library book sale, and the whole quartet was a lot of fun to read. The pacing of the first novel is a little slow, but it’s worth it. The books are an in-depth exploration of possible ways to overcome prejudiced based in ignorance, and I appreciated how invested I became as a reader in that journey.

***

Now, what have you all been up to? This curious mind wants to know!

Photo by Silvia Viñuales
Social Issues

what Anne Shirley means to me, and surviving trauma

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

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

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

I apparently did not read the same books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by James Hill