Reiter's Block

Survivors in Church: Insights from Disability Theology

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my therapist, "Will I ever get to the bottom of this pile of bad feelings, or is this my life?" I was going through another patch of nightmares and becoming frustrated. No new information was coming up; the incidents were way in the past, by now more thoroughly re-processed than Cheez Whiz.

I'd been operating with this image of my psyche as an overstuffed closet. As long as I was awake, I could keep holding the door shut, but every time I fell asleep, some junk would fall out. Eventually, though, wouldn't I run out of old junk? Then I would have reclaimed my entire closet, to fill only with things from my fabulous new life!

But my therapist was like, "Nah, it doesn't work that way."

Some feelings will shift, she said; some memories will lose their charge, others will remain very painful but arise less often. However, PTSD is for many people a lifelong chronic condition. As Buddha said about suffering in general, the biggest thing I can do to ease my burden is to stop resisting it. Stop being surprised and frightened when it flares up again. Stop being angry at myself for not being "done" healing. There is no "done".

I was thrilled!

It was a relief to stop blaming myself for my scars, and the survivor-introvert-Highly Sensitive Person in me loves predictability. But also, I was overjoyed that now I had a name for the liberal Christian indifference toward survivors, which I'd been awkwardly calling "normalcy privilege".


On one level, the liberal church does a lot to ensure access for people with disabilities. Our parish, for instance, is one of the few congregations in the area with a sign language interpreter every Sunday. We're undertaking a heroic capital campaign to add an elevator. The priest adapts the liturgy to say, "Those who are able, please stand".

But as is usually the case in liberalism, the model is inclusion for the disabled, rather than disability as a standpoint for liberation theology. The latter, more radical posture would mean that the able-bodied/neurotypical people in charge would de-center their own experience, and invite the disabled to share what Christianity looks like in our lives.

For instance, where do we situate ourselves in the many gospel stories about Jesus healing mental and physical illnesses? (I'm treating the demon-possession stories as examples of mental illness because those were the manifested symptoms, but I don't mean to imply the demons weren't also real.) Liberal sermons about these stories are more likely to assume a non-disabled subject position for their audience. "We" are encouraged to emulate Jesus by healing others, or to overcome "our" prejudices about sharing fellowship with mentally challenged people. I will say that our church has made some progress beyond this narrow paradigm, through sermons about personal and family struggles with addiction, such as this beautiful meditation from lay preacher Vicki Ix at God Is Always More.

When we only talk about disability in the context of healing, that's problematic in its own right. Of course those who feel afflicted want healing. Of course those who empathize with others' affliction want to offer them something to hope for. But in reality, some conditions are incurable. While I don't rule out miraculous divine cures, I feel that most of our energy should be directed toward overcoming obstacles to the disabled person's functioning as an equal in our church, just as she is.

The pressure to manifest a spiritual happy ending can actually impair recovery. When there is healing, particularly for psychological conditions, it may not even be recognized by the non-afflicted, because they've been steeped in the ableist cultural narrative of triumphing over the disability rather than embracing it. For example, survivors who claim they've forgiven the abuser and released all angry feelings get more credit for being "healed" than survivors who have gone deep enough into recovery to feel righteous anger and finally love themselves.

Alongside the theology of healing, we need to develop theology that honors the disability as an genuine alternative way of being in the world. This is how some hearing-impaired people feel about Deaf culture. The autism community also includes many who want to celebrate their neurodiversity rather than eliminate it. In my recent post about survivors' spiritual gifts, I suggested that the church could learn something unique from our trauma history and how we adapted to it.

The foregoing discussion owes much to Kelby Carlson's essay "Crooked Healing", which I found when Googling disability theology. Carlson, a music student and evangelical Christian, suggests that disability can be a vocation and a symbol of the universal human vulnerability that calls for God's grace. Some quotes follow, but please read the whole thing here.

...It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God...


 ...The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world...


...There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory...

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross [the thorn in the flesh]...


...The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering...

Have a blessed Good Friday, dear readers.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
4/18/2014 9:45 AM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
My Poem "Lord of the Storm" at Utmost Christian Writers

The poetry website Utmost Christian Writers, edited by Nathan Harms, has offered me a regular home for my spiritual writing for over a decade. This year I was honored to win First Honorable Mention in their annual poetry contest. My entry, "Lord of the Storm", was inspired by memories of a family vacation on Martha's Vineyard when Shane was about six weeks old. Nathan has kindly permitted me to reprint it below. The contest deadline is usually February 28, with prizes up to $1,000. Read the winners here (more runners-up will be posted on the site during the next week).

Lord of the Storm

Here is the ocean I promised you
salting your forehead with my fingertips.

Inconsolable joy.
Motherless, I mother.

Brown foam sucks the sand from under my toes,
digging a hollow shaped like my standing.

Six-weeks boy, swaddled blue as Cape waters,
your cries scouring my heart.

Down the driftwood stairs, down to the eroded coast,
carrying you, the first trust in my arms.

You came from a longer sea,
a more constant sun.

Neither of us belong to time,
un-homed from the country of sleep.

I'd thought waking for you would be no harder
than my old midnight pattern of terrors.

Three a.m. in the mildewed sunroom,
no one breathing but us and the dark waters.

All the silences wore off at once.
My ghosts became baby birds pleading not to starve.

Today's ocean has hush enough
to spread spangled to the pearly horizon.

Each glinting wavelet a day of my history,
washing my hands as I lose it.

Your shrimp-pink fingers curl at my neck.
You open stone-blue eyes to summer's glare.

You have no name for yourself or mother
or drowning or birth, so I will tell you:

That solid shape rocking on the distant current
could be a boat where a friend lies sleeping

as bravely as we will sleep tonight,
a man who knows where he comes from and where he is going.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
4/16/2014 9:31 AM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Donal Mahoney: "Easter at the Nursing Home"

Reiter's Block welcomes back regular reader and contributor Donal Mahoney. The characters in Donal's poems are drawn from our everyday life, but the issues they confront have cosmic significance. They're fresh and down-to-earth yet also timeless, as the gospel stories must have sounded to their original audience.

Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had work published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at

Easter at the Nursing Home

When bread
is this good
a morsel

will suffice
and when wine
is this good

a sip is enough
for the wraiths
and specters

coming toward
the altar now
on crutches

in wheel chairs

the last Easter
some of them
will know

as they await
a resurrection
of their own.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
4/15/2014 3:19 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Two Poems from Amanda Auchter's "The Wishing Tomb"

Winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Award in Poetry, Amanda Auchter's exquisite new collection The Wishing Tomb (Perugia Press, 2012) surveys the cultural history of New Orleans over three centuries, in poems that quiver and shake with music and surge with the violence of floods. End-notes provide background on the incidents that inspired each poem.

About those notes: At first I found it distracting to flip back and forth between the storyline unwinding in the lyric poetry and the factual squibs at the end of the book. Should I break the flow and spoil the surprise by checking the notes first, and risk only finding what I already "know" the poem is about? Should I read the poems first, and endure the disorientation of not comprehending their context? I just had to read the book twice! And I'm sure it won't be my last visit to these steamy, sad, gorgeous pages.

Upon reflection, I understood that the unreconciled duality of form was part of Auchter's commentary on New Orleans, city of masks, oppressive and beautiful. A number of the poems hinge on the tension between the official story and the suppressed voices within it. Slaves speak here, and criminals, the dead, the polluted landscape.

The poems below, "Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850" and "St. Louis Cathedral, 2005", are excerpted from The Wishing Tomb, with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, MA. Copyright 2012 by Amanda Auchter.

Harriet Beecher Stowe at the Cornstalk Hotel, 1850

A man and a woman arrive together

in chains. His voice surfaces—
I shall try to meet you there—but I cannot

hear what follows. Tea cools in white china.
I think of horses, the way they walk back

and forth, hold up their heads. Horses,
the way a man in a coat turns them about,

    opens their mouths, checks their teeth. Scars

on the flanks. A chimney gasps smoke
into the afternoon. The body looted. A child

plays a violin outside the stalls, watches
as women remove their handkerchiefs,

       show their hands. A whip

weaves close to the ears. The balcony overlooks
a narrow street, a cart and driver.

    The voices drift out, an edge

of an outline. The voices say, I hope
you will try to meet me in heaven.

       I shall try to meet you there.


St. Louis Cathedral, 2005

The marble Jesus opens his eyes to the violence
      of wind shaking bananas from tender stems,
   the crack of two oak trees falling

in St. Anthony’s Garden behind their ornamental gate.
      Rivers fill his mouth and in each
   he tastes a shipwreck: torn boards, canvas,

drowned bodies. The slap of purple beads
      against his bare feet. His arms
   spread out as though he could cradle the city

inside him, as though the water that rises
      above porches and windowsills,
   above attics could abate with his strange light.

While the city darkens, he continues to turn each palm
      skyward, an offering of damp stone,
   a leaf caught in the crack of his right palm. Water

falls from his eyes and behind him, the wind
      tears a hole in the roof of the church.
   The rain enters the roof, floods

the Holtkamp pipe organ until everything is silent
      of music. His hands are quieted
   of their pale prayers—the left forefinger

and thumb broken off by a brick spinning its red stream
      into the air. They push away
   from his body. He watches

the city float past with its shattered glass, shoes,
      telephone wire. How the debris of his
   broken fingers swirl away from him, then point back.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
4/9/2014 2:45 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Two Poems from Diana Anhalt's "Lives of Straw"

Poet and political historian Diana Anhalt moved to Mexico with her family in 1950, where her parents joined a community of left-wing expatriates who'd left the U.S. to escape Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist persecutions. She would live there for the next 50 years. The full text of her nonfiction book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico, 1948-1965 (Archer Books) is available online here.

Her new poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Lives of Straw, movingly depicts Mexican cultural traditions and characters from the economic margins. The opening and closing poems are from her perspective, first as a young girl adapting to a foreign country and language, and then her equally disorienting return to America half-a-century later. Within that frame, Anhalt lets her Mexican characters speak for themselves, in colorful, musical, yet often blunt persona poems that show many facets of the struggle for survival. Fortune-tellers, street vendors (including one selling poetry), herbal healers, death-defying construction workers, and con artists must devote all their creative genius to earning their next meal. Diana has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below.

Dancing Alone

A summer's night in Veracruz. The Rico Perez band plays a bolero
in the plaza principal. Lanterns thread the trees. I thread my way
through the sidelines. Edge past an ice cream vendor, girls in silk
and denim, dog walkers, two bald babies in headbands--to the center.
Couples shake and shuffle to the music. Some women dance alone,

reminding me of women in Pinochet's Chile who danced the cueca,
partnered with snapshots of their desaparecidos--husbands, mothers,
sons. Here, an elderly woman in a pearl gray dress, struts, twirls
to the music, flexes her hands, nods her head, pauses to tighten
an earring. I suppose that everywhere, after violence, illness, divorce

women congregate on dance floors, raise their arms above their heads,
swing their hips to a merengue, beat out the rhythm of a cha cha cha,
and dance alone. This woman in gray resembles my mother-in-law,
now dead, who never would have. Me? I only pray, should--
dios no lo quiera--heaven forbid--that day come, I would.



a word that inhabits my Spanish-speaking mouth,
lies under my tongue and smells of evergreens,
and rainy Mondays, smoke. From the word querer--

to want, desire, wish. It refers to bulls
who seek their place of solace in the ring.
For the waif in every living creature. I think

of the neighbor's dachshund hunkered under the porch,
the sparrow haunting a fallen tree, the child
afraid to stray too far from his mother's side.

We took to driving the Cuernavaca highway
and parked in the clearing with that Mexico City view.
As the air turned hazy with cigarette smoke,

we'd drink wine from the bottle, talk and listen to danzones
on the radio. We drove away soon after, took
our memories with us, haven't returned.

After years away, our key no longer fits
the lock. And our home, grown used to strangers' feet,
is home no more.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
4/3/2014 11:07 AM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Two Poems from Heather Christle's "The Difficult Farm"

As April is National Poetry Month, I thought I'd give my blog readers some relief from the theological heavy lifting, and share some excerpts and reviews of the poets I've enjoyed lately.

I picked up Heather Christle's The Difficult Farm at the Octopus Books table at AWP 2011 because of the haunted-looking one-eared rabbit peering out from its acid-yellow cover. He's an apt mascot for these poems, whose randomness can be both sinister and humorous.

...Dear nasty pregnant forest.
You are so hot!
You are environmentally significant.
Men love to hang themselves
from your standard old growth trees.
Don't look at me.

("Acorn Duly Crushed")

The book's title made me think of "the funny farm", slang for an asylum, the place where persons deemed "difficult" are shut away, laughed at for the nonsense they speak. But is it nonsense? Christle's poems are held together by tone rather than logic. They have the cadence and momentum of building an argument, but are composed of non sequiturs. But the individual observations within that stream of consciousness often ring so true that you may find yourself nodding along: Q.E.D.

...I am remembering how yesterday
a falcon landed on the telephone pole
and we stepped out of the car, amazed.
It was the color of somebody's carpet.
In somebody's carpet there is a falcon-
shaped hole.

("It Is Raining in Here")

I had to ask myself whether I perceived the book's speaker as female because of the author's name, or whether "she" did indeed sound like the quirky nerd-girl character from indie romantic comedies, who naturally thinks in words like "paraphrasic" and "over-cathected" but acts hapless and adorable in social situations. Whatever the reason, it made her more likeable than John Ashbery, whose technique is similar but never appealed to me. This book displayed an eagerness for connection through talk, while recognizing that we mostly use language for social glue rather than sincere information exchange. So why not serve up a "radiant salad" of words?

Heather has kindly allowed me to reprint the two poems below. Visit her blog to find out about her latest books. Some of my other favorites from The Difficult Farm, including "The Avalanche Club" and "The Handsome Man", are available elsewhere online. Or you could just buy the book, and help the bunny pay for his plastic surgery.


I do not have a farm do you have
a farm? on my farm are horses
cows pigeons chickens a dungeon
they tend to themselves it's so easy!
I do not feel well do you feel
well? my throat's on fire I mean
missing something crucial let's say
the filament say filament! everyone
feels really good especially the horses
riding around like a bunch of stupid
chickens those are some foxy
beasts! I think beauty rises from
the dead do you think beauty rises?
like the great retarded sun? like
here comes beauty with its slow
dumb light and it's touching stuff
& now I'm scattering feed I ordered
from mother nature's catalog
which everyone knows has the best
pictures that's why it's all cut up
& the seed is falling out the holes &
the chickens are falling out
the holes & everyone gets papercuts!
goodbye chickens have a nice
time exploding in oblivion!

Stroking My Head With My Deception Stick

Someone shut down the local shimmer
but not the police who thought

it was Sunday and so spent hours
arranging their long and pliant hair.

Constable Jacques is the best man I know
but even he won't converse with the dead.

The dead are so vain and hungry--
they will straddle your mirrors and swallow

your oak trees with their huge elastic lips.
And then you hear the screaming, not to be found

within the dead, but rather in the tiny
black pot which holds the greater part

of our mass and the difficult
farm where all the hens are black

and black are the wheatfields through which
runs a black and silent wind. Thin teachers

explain to our children: if the farm is a burgeoning
snowglobe, then the screaming's a legend, like glass.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
3/30/2014 2:12 PM | View Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Survivors in Church: Our Spiritual Gifts

In this second post in my occasional series on abuse survivors in the church, I'd like to reflect on some of the spiritual gifts that have emerged through my recovery, and how the church could offer greater scope for them to be exercised.

It's a delicate matter even to frame the issue this way. Our pain-avoidant culture is too hasty to point out the silver linings while we're still shivering under the rain clouds. As soon as I try to appreciate my personal growth, I become afraid of giving listeners an opening to minimize the suffering that spurred it. Does the empty tomb erase the cross?

Those dear tokens of his passion/Still his dazzling body bears.
The foundation story of our faith cannot be reduced to either shattering violence or undefeated love. The progressive church tends to skip over this gut-wrenching paradox, foregrounding the "functional" Jesus, the competent social justice activist and moral teacher with no visible wounds. But we survivors live between the cross-pieces of love and violence. The first gift we offer the church is the invitation to an honest exploration of that place.

The other gifts I will discuss below are drawn from my experience and the experiences of my friends in recovery. Naturally, not all survivors will interpret their journey in the same way.

Clarification of beliefs:

Because of my healing work, I appreciate how our beliefs can profoundly impact our lives, for good or ill. I have clearer critical thinking about where my beliefs come from, and tools to evaluate whether they are true and nourishing for me and my community.

All abuse involves some element of brainwashing. It severs the story-spinning brain from the distress signals given off by the body and the emotions. It deliberately instills confusion about whom to trust and who is to blame for the feelings of shame and disgust. This after-effect of trauma can be one of the most difficult to undo, because by definition, it is embedded below the conscious level.

The healing method I've found most helpful, Inner Bonding, directs me to look inward for the "false beliefs" that I'm still running in the background, and then to identify the life-giving truth with help from my Higher Power. For instance, a very common and influential false belief is, "I am unlovable unless I do X," where X could be pleasing an authority figure, achieving something to prove one's worth, or making sacrifices to serve others. The truth is that we are all beloved children of God, just as we are, and while there may still be good reasons to do X, earning our right to exist is not one of them.

Retraining people's beliefs in a Godly and life-giving direction is theoretically the church's distinctive mission. Isn't that the plus-factor that differentiates "church" from a social club, charity, or activist group?

You would think so, but the liberal church is in a decades-long flight from sophisticated, evaluative conversations about belief. For years I defended the conservative position that "Christianity is the only true religion," simply because it grated on my nerves (and scared me more than I realized) when liberals tossed off the platitude, "It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're a good person." I knew from hard experience that beliefs have everything to do with discerning what is good and being able to act on that awareness. So I got a strong signal there that no one wanted to hear about my journey out of the psychological fog. I was looking for a community of sanity in which to detox from my crazy-making home. That just wasn't the church's priority.

Or perhaps liberals are saying that whatever else Christianity has to offer, its religious beliefs (e.g. a personal God, the atonement, Jesus's miracles, the cross and resurrection) have no effect on helping you choose a life of compassion versus domination, or reality versus delusion. In that case, you folks are wasting my time.

I'm frustrated that I've had to do my belief-repair completely outside Christian channels, figuring out on my own how to bring in the Jesus piece. And I suspect that others in the church are anxious and adrift, picking up signals of discouragement from the progressive thought-leaders that their deepest questions have no answers, or that they would rupture the social harmony if they started demanding some.

This discouragement is unnecessary. The answers aren't really so mysterious. They only seem so because of our proliferation of thoughts, those elaborate defenses stemming from unwillingness to feel our feelings and follow the Spirit into unknown territory. Jesus said, "Everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7:8)

I'd like to give the church the gift of my testimony that this promise keeps proving itself in my experience.

Dependence on grace:

In the previous section, I mentioned the false belief that we have to earn our right to exist. It looks to me like most people in modern Western society struggle with this, because of individualism, capitalism, social mobility, and all the usual suspects. On top of that, members of marginalized groups also have to overcome internalized negative stereotypes about their identity (e.g. racism, homophobia).

For survivors of childhood abuse, the delusion of perpetual probation goes deep, because the very people who brought us into the world didn't treat us as having inherent worth. In my house, we couldn't say no to things that felt bad (unwelcome touch, exposure of private matters, rewriting of family history, isolation from friends), just because they felt bad. We had to give our abuser reasons why our proposed boundary was "right". Safety depended on winning endless arguments, which isn't really safety at all. We also learned that receiving love and kindness was conditional on not angering the person in charge -- as though we actually had control over that.

The blessing is, once I understood that self-justification was an unwinnable set-up from my dysfunctional past, I had no choice but to depend completely on God's unconditional love. Now I have a basis to achieve goals and serve others without the hindrance of anxiety about protecting my ego. (An ideal realized imperfectly thus far, of course!) Perhaps people who've always been able to please the relevant scorekeepers take longer to realize their need to quit the game.

I'd like to give the church the gift of encouragement that grace is really there for us and makes us feel wonderful when we rely on it.

Awareness of power dynamics:

Product liability law includes the concept of "predictable misuse". In cases of alleged negligent design, it's not enough for the manufacturer to show that the product should be safe when used as directed. The company also has to make it safe for other situations that can be reasonably anticipated. For instance, the intended use of a chair is for sitting, but it's foreseeable that consumers will also stand on chairs to reach high shelves, so it might be a design defect if the chair seat collapses when stood upon.

Survivors are your theological product testers. We know better than to assume that everyone who hears a teaching will apply it with good intentions. We're naturally hypervigilant to imagine scenarios where the teaching could be manipulated to oppress someone, or could unintentionally reinforce a listener's self-harming false beliefs. Don't dismiss us as paranoid. We can help make your church's worldview nuanced and sturdy enough to withstand spiritual abusers.

Survivors make great deconstructionists. We're sensitive to the subject position of the person speaking. We notice the kind of power imbalances that upset Jesus in Matthew 23, when he denounced the Pharisees for laying burdens on others that they didn't bear themselves. Because we've been outsiders for so long, we can teach our fellow Christians not to mistake one privileged perspective for a universal norm. For instance, we can correct their naivete about institutions like the family, which the mainstream church narrative only describes in terms of safety and benevolence. Though it's painful to shatter these illusions, only then can the church become a real refuge for domestic violence victims.

I'd like to give my church the gifts of worst-case-scenario foresight and political consciousness, so that our teachings and leadership structure are truly liberating for the most vulnerable among us.

Urgency of spiritual practice:

Survivors who pray, pray like our hair's on fire. We don't have the energy for religious busywork. To be worthwhile, church has to offer us strategies to get through each day. It has to supply the spiritual food of consolation, acceptance, and liberation to people who have long been famished.

Our honesty about our needs can push the church toward a healthier balance between local and remote service projects. Helping seems simpler when the beneficiaries are thousands of miles away. Creating change in our own backyard can be controversial, and we might receive uncomfortable feedback about the mixed effects of our interventions. It's not "sexy" for a church to take care of its own members; it triggers American middle-class guilt about our privileges. But survivors just don't care anymore about these ego defenses. It's our turn to seek healing. If the church tells us to wait in line behind everyone else in the world, we'll go elsewhere. Do you really want a church where the people who most desperately need Jesus become burned-out first?

I'd like to give my church the gifts of passion for God and acceptance of vulnerability.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
3/26/2014 9:09 AM | View Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
New Poem by Conway: "Indignance of Time"

My prison pen pal "Conway" has made good use of his time to write poetry while he waits for a hearing on his early release petition. Here, he shares a brief intense lyric that he wrote inside a card with his original artwork, inspired by Salvador Dali's melting clock faces in the painting "Persistence of Memory". I was struck by the apocalyptic closing image of missiles lined up and waiting. "The day of perpetual consumption" is a uniquely modern American twist on the Last Judgment -- the fire that never ceases to consume us, who never cease to consume the world.

Indignance of Time

Dancing on an escalator
   any Blackjack can move
as verse quakes off the sound
   rattling around
This town this shaft going nowhere.

Some shop keep roars.
   From shag deep floors
     But no one keys the door.
   Once done, no'one can come
back out of this inner sanctum
   this Holy glass of need.

We crave to tour the billboard lit night.

   Abundant commerce
      misled souvenir missiles of clay;

Lined up to wake the day
   of perpetual consumption...

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
3/17/2014 3:25 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
A Tale of Two Devotionals

Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.

The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP's cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD's is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day's reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as "I will do something kind for a stranger today" or "I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer". ERD's daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.

Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It's good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.

ERD's happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches' flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It's not that these projects are wrong -- although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we're partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.

When I hear "Feed my sheep," I don't just think of the bottom layer of Maslow's need pyramid -- literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can't offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn't value my gifts, as it doesn't support my vocation to feed others in these ways.

FFP's is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can't blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I'm realizing that maybe I don't want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.

Take, for instance, the resolution "I will forgive someone who has hurt me". The only people I'm still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven't acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren't capable of it, and I wouldn't be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?

Beyond that, it's not conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment, and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity. That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.

Maybe I'm taking this too seriously. Maybe they're talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn't take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn't get in the way. But although that's hard work worth doing, I don't think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said "Forgive those who persecute you", not "Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes."

This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus's teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it "really means" what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don't believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.

I became a Christian because the religion's understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don't have to leave because it no longer does.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
3/14/2014 10:33 AM | View Comments (8) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Good Christians Don't Feel...

Lent gives Christians a refreshing opportunity to bring the topic of sin out into the open. In this season, we're reminded that Christ's love takes away our shame and sets us free to be honest. Hopefully this invitation generates not only personal repentance but critical thinking about what we consider sinful, and why.

Contemplating the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, I'm struck by the fact that they're all feelings or states of mind, not actions. True, a lot of our day-to-day misbehaviors are the mindless result of bad dispositions that we've allowed to become habitual. If I approach others with a routinely suspicious and fault-finding outlook, people are less likely to respond to me with intimacy and candor, which then perversely confirms my distorted view that everyone is a cold-hearted liar.

On the other hand, we can be deprived of a crucial tool for healing when careless over-generalization misidentifies the emotion as the sin, rather than its unskillful expression or unfair choice of target. Fear or anger may be a perfectly rational response to conditions in a person's life, now or in the past. For some, those conditions were so extreme or long-lasting that the emotional response is neurologically ingrained, not amenable to shutdown by an act of willpower. When the religious community judges and stigmatizes the emotion itself, that person is impeded from coming out of denial and learning the emotion's true cause.

In the conservative church, where faith is the primary command, fear may be targeted as a sign of failure. The liberal church, which prioritizes social harmony and benevolence, may struggle to have a nuanced conversation about anger. As we Episcopalians unpack our legacy of establishment privilege, we should take a fresh look at our checklist of sins from the perspective of the oppressed -- those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness", those whose anger has a just cause and represents a step toward self-determination. In a paradigm where there are only benefactors and sufferers, this perspective goes unheard.

Anger is the torch by whose light we see what has been done to us. Do we douse it because fire can sometimes go out of control?

In her book Sermons for a Lesbian Tent Revival, radical feminist playwright and activist Carolyn Gage includes a provocative (and funny) exposition of "The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Bring More of Them Into Your Life". I don't endorse all of Gage's work -- like many Second Wave rad-fems, she's offensively transgender-phobic -- but when she's on, she's on. Here, "Sister Carolyn of the Sacred Synapse" analyzes the varieties of angry experience, better than any preacher I know:
Okay, but what about Wrath? Sister Carolyn believes in Wrath. She believes a woman's Wrath is sacred. What does the dictionary have to say about Wrath?

1: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement

Divine chastisement. Yes ma'am!

And where does this word come from? It comes from an old English word for "twisted". And that is when you are trying to turn one way and something is forcing you to turn the other...and it is SQUEEZING you, sisters...just wringing the breath out of you. Like trying to know the truth when someone is feeding you lies. Like trying to be free when someone is trying to control you. Like trying to do something radical and counterclockwise with your life, but finding out that all your old conditioning is just going to keep twisting you clockwise.

WRATH. Yeah! Like loving a planet when it's being ruined. Like caring for your sisters and seeing them have to live every day in a war zone. WRATH. Like raising your children and seeing the whole world geared up to violate them...Yes, sisters, bring it! Let's get our Wrath on! (pgs. 142-43)

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3/6/2014 3:26 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
New Poem by Conway: "Throwing Strikes"

In this latest poem from my prison pen pal "Conway", he makes a pun on California's "three-strikes" sentencing law, which condemned him to 25 years to life for receiving stolen goods. He is still awaiting a court date on his early release petition pursuant to the law's repeal in 2012.

Throwing Strikes

In this deserted surround
  no voice echoes
   as shards of concrete
    erupt from rusted selves
     just disregarded shells.

Another door slammed shut
  forged considering the score
   blind no more to loose lips
    the silent frame up
     of unlimited mysteries' damage.

Back when I couldn't admit
  some small time defeat, even if
   it put me back on the street.

I knew the situation...
  It would not end, even after
   a meeting of knuckles on skin.

Light lyrics, became heavy lies
  years, as far away as yesterday
   ricochets snatched up so easily
    become the law, the gavel
  as a systematic machine
   takes it in, like a pitcher's glove...

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3/5/2014 2:21 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Lent at My Fingertips

For several years, I've had a quirky practice of giving up so-called good things for Lent: going to church, for instance. One year I gave up Lent for Lent. But this year, that seems like a way of avoiding focus in my spiritual self-assessment -- "giving up" something so large and vague that it doesn't generate any concrete changes in my moment-to-moment living.

So I'm giving up biting my nails for Lent.

Hundreds of times a day, my poor tortured cuticles and I will have to find another way to cope with boredom, anxiety, or the need for comfort. I'm not committing to any showy promises that I'll say a prayer each time I avoid snacking on my epidermis. I'll be lucky if I make the time occasionally to inquire into the feelings beneath the bad habit. Who knows, maybe there are no feelings. Overthinking my own motives is another behavior I could gladly give up for Lent.

I'm going with the smallest, most specific change I can think of this year, because I can be honest with myself about what it is and whether I'm doing it. My perspective on the big issues of Christian faith is in such flux that no major action feels satisfying or sincere.

For instance, living with a baseline of constant, object-less fear is something I would like to change. Some would say that God would take this burden away if only I had enough faith -- that I'm choosing to be stuck in the past, to dwell on the times I felt abandoned rather than the times when God's felt presence or human allies supported me. Or the reverse interpretation could be true: as I finally apprehend how awful my past was, I experience God's absence at a whole new depth. What follows from this? Is "God the Father" compatible with coming into my full strength as an adult? Or is trauma healing not a theological problem at all, but primarily a matter of slowly retraining the nervous system? In that case, religious promises of instantaneous deliverance ring hollow.

I'm unlikely to have an answer for these questions in the next two days. The best I can do is resolve to respond to fear with more mindfulness and less compulsive, self-destructive behavior. And it starts at my fingertips.

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3/3/2014 4:44 PM | View Comments (1) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
The Questionable Value of an Abuser's Back-Story

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. The French proverb sums up the conventional story arc of healing and closure, encountered repeatedly in inspirational articles and literary novels that take on the difficult subject of abuse. The survivors in these stories are depicted as stuck in pain and anger from the past until they discover their perpetrator's own trauma history and learn to empathize with her.

Victimized and vulnerable, we long for a God's-eye view that reveals our senseless trauma to be only a small piece of a larger, meaningful pattern. How could that person's emotional responses be so unlike mine? Where did her empathy wiring become unplugged? When she saw me as deserving of torment, who was she really seeing?

That's why we seize on the fact, or speculate where no facts are available, that "the abuser was abused herself". Traumatically bonded to the parent, and striving to contextualize positive memories of feeling cared for, the adult survivor imaginatively identifies with the "real" person inside her perpetrator, pictured as a wounded child like herself. This kicks the blame upstairs, to the parent's parent or the creepy guy in the bushes, preserving the fantasy that but for some very bad luck, the abusive parent would have been the loving person that she really wanted to be.

However, this strategy impedes awareness that the abuser and the victim are not the same person, repeating the confusion of the original trauma. As Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera described in The Scapegoat Complex, an unhealthy parent will split off the rejected parts of her psyche and convince her child that those bad feelings and actions are really his. The incest survivor feels the shame that actually belongs to the perpetrator, and unfortunately, society (including mental health professionals) easily falls prey to the same error.

When I think of the part of me that is merged with my mother, the paranormal bond she always insisted we had, the images that come to mind are hidden damage and family curse. I hear Johnny Cash singing "I See a Darkness" (Many times we've shared our thoughts/But did you ever, ever notice/The kind of thoughts I got?) and "The Beast in Me" (who In the twinkling of an eye/Might have to be restrained).

The incest survivor who blogs at Speaking While the World Sleeps wrote a characteristically hard-hitting post in December 2013, about how "abusers as victims" makes survivors afraid of ourselves and stigmatized in society:
It’s a nice, simple explanation that makes people feel better about abuse. Clearly abuse is just self-contained. I’m also sure that it makes non-survivors feel better about themselves – certainly they would never abuse because they’re not like those tragic people.

What this does is assume that there is something in being a survivor that could turn us into abusers. That there is something inherently in us now that we have to fight against to not be abusive and those poor abusive dears who just weren’t strong enough gave into the darkness inside of them. It turns us survivors into ticking time bombs not to be trusted because at any minute there’s the chance that we could “turn.”...

...It flattens the lives of survivors because it reduces us to an “abuse narrative” rather than seeing us as people with unique stories and experiences. It says that everything we do is in relation to the abuse, and that our abusers actions are only in relation to their abuse. We have no lives, no experiences, no other events or circumstances that contribute to our lives. We are not human beings with choices, all our decisions instead revolve around are reactions to the abuse. It turns abusers into unthinking animals who are only able to respond on a base, emotional level, with no conscious thought at all. It assumes that abusers just “don’t know better.” It plays into my mother’s belief of the “whoops, accidentally sexually abused you!”

I think the simplicity of this reasoning allows for us to believe that abuse is self-contained, is separate from the “normal” people. It’s a line of behavior passed down from parent to child, and I feel like it allows non-survivors to believe that they are untainted by its stain – they hold no responsibility for it and they are safe from it.

For me, nobody has more credibility on this issue than Alice Miller. In my favorite book of hers, Banished Knowledge, she expounds on her core belief that abusive parents are indeed re-enacting some childhood trauma. Yet she is unique in her firm insistence that this fact creates no obligation for the survivor to feel any particular way -- no compulsory forgiveness, no necessary sympathy, no minimizing or moral equivalence. We've spent more than enough time caretaking such parents. We had to empathize with them at our expense in order to survive. It's our own inner child's story that is awaiting a long-overdue hearing.

Just once I'd like to read a novel where a survivor decides to disengage from his family story. Instead of imaginatively bonding with his abuser through their common wounds, he accepts that their bond was never genuine or mutual, and learns to grieve this loss while reclaiming his future.

I guess I'll have to write it myself.

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2/27/2014 2:03 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Ginger Selfies

Quentin Crisp. Queen Elizabeth I. And me.

Last week I joined the ranks of fabulous faux redheads, thanks to Robin LaFleur at Hair Etc. in Northampton.

I've always been entranced by red hair. From second grade through freshman year in high school, I had a ridiculous crush on a boy several grades ahead of me, about whom I knew hardly anything, except that he had a lion-esque mane of coppery curls. Before that, when I was four, I wanted to marry my grandmother's marmalade cat (who turned out to be female).

So I figured, a little peroxide wouldn't hurt my brain function in any noticeable way.

(Google Images approximation of Sidney the cat. I should only look so good. Source here.)

The two-hour process began with application of the "head condom", a very tight rubber cap to protect my underlying natural color while highlights were applied to selected strands of hair. Said strands were picked up off my scalp, with a device resembling an awl, to make them protrude through holes in the cap, like so:

Can you hear my eyebrows squeaking?

Next, Robin painted peroxide on the top strands to lift off the dark color, then encased them in a baggie to bake under the dryer.

The production budget for "Ride of the Valkyries" was low this year.

Reading "The Goldfinch" at the salon like the aesthete I am.

Just when I was realizing why I don't perform femininity more often, Robin turned off the Shake-n-Bake. This is what I look like as a blonde:

Dr. Frankenstein, we have a problem with the electricity.

My head was repainted with the red dye and left to soak for 25 minutes en plein air, followed by a refreshing shampoo. I went home to terrify my family with my new fashion personality.

Hell yeah, I'm gonna finish my novel.

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2/13/2014 11:16 AM | View Comments (2) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Murder Ballad Monday: Beatlemania Edition

We all remember those moments when a work of art opened our eyes and ears. Those "I didn't know you could do that!" moments fill us with an uncontainable, restless excitement to respond in some way with a creative outpouring of our own, only we don't yet have the words to express what we've encountered.

I felt that way when I first heard The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on my mother's record player in the late 1970s. It was wicked, enigmatic, mesmerizing -- a taste of adulthood's forbidden knowledge. Since I still don't understand the lyrics, it holds much of the same magic for me today.

My mother was a snob about popular music, for the most part. The Beatles were the only rock 'n' roll group she would tolerate among her LPs of Tchaikovsky and Broadway musicals. This made me a social outcast in middle school until I acquired my own portable radio in 1983, on which I listened secretly to Prince singing "Raspberry Beret". Perhaps that's why it took me until last year to figure out that "Octopus's Garden" was a metaphor for the female anatomy.

This week, fans commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' American TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show. That makes me feel old, but this song makes me feel like a rebellious teenager all over again.

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2/10/2014 2:29 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Survivors in Church: Between Covenant and Choice

Survivors in Church: A Preamble

Welcome to the first post in a multi-part series about trauma survivors in the church. Topics will include common triggers in the church environment and their effects on survivors' participation; how the church's beliefs, particularly its picture of human nature, can either be healing or re-traumatizing; pastoral care for survivors; the challenges of authentic life in community; and the spiritual gifts of people with a trauma-informed perspective.

The Christian literature on this subject is remarkably sparse, if you're looking for books that are informed by feminist values and modern psychology. The theological memoir Proverbs of Ashes by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock stands nearly alone in the landscape. I learned a lot from this book, but I personally did not share the authors' need to reject the Atonement altogether. The concept of redemptive sacrifice can be terribly misapplied, but in my opinion, the Crucifixion doesn't have to be interpreted as only a spiritualization of child abuse, unless you believe that Jesus was not divine but just another human martyr. I do still recommend the book as a starting point. Sarah Over the Moon has been blogging its high points in this series.

The male gender presentation of Jesus is also not my personal trigger, and I don't like to organize spiritual traits along a gender-binary axis (e.g. male=individualist, female=relational), so I'm not talking about "feminizing" the church's image of God in Christ to make it more comfortable for survivors of male-on-female abuse. There are a lot of feminist spirituality books on that theme already, some more recognizably Christian than others.

In my view, patriarchy is just the most common manifestation of a more fundamental sin, our impulse to turn difference into domination and stigma. I love the Christ of the Gospels because he identified this root of evil and attacked it head-on with the greater power of egalitarian, non-dominating love.

So, to sum up, "Survivors in Church" will not be about revising our Christology. It's about the reasons why survivors of relational trauma may find it difficult to be present in church while we're healing, and what can be done about it.

Episode I: Between Covenant and Choice

I've been thinking a lot lately about my baptismal vows.

Nothing feels as good to me, right now, as knowing I have a choice about who gets to be intimate with me. I don't mean sex -- that's a different vow! I mean, who gets to be in my life; who has a claim on my energy, devotion, sacrifice; who knows my secrets and deserves candor about my feelings; who can expect me to stay present with them, even when it's uncomfortable for me to face their needs, our difference of opinion, or their perception of my shortcomings.

My relational trauma was heavy on engulfment, surveillance, and brainwashing. To end the abuse, I had to rupture the most foundational and socially sanctified unchosen relationship, the mother-child bond. Having broken this taboo, I can't take any other obligatory relationships between adults completely seriously. "You can't guilt-trip me, I threw my own mother under the bus!" (Actually I jumped off the bus she was driving over a cliff, metaphorically speaking, but bad-daughter guilt isn't rational.)

Recently I heard a beautiful sermon envisioning church as a community where all kinds of people, without stigma or hierarchy, could minister to each other's needs and learn from each other's unique perspectives -- rich and poor, old and young, all genders and orientations and ethnicities, recovering addicts, the mentally ill, and so forth. That's the Kingdom of God that I believe in.

So why was I triggered as well as inspired?

Because I don't get to be the gatekeeper of this community. I am bound in a common life with people I haven't vetted for emotional safety.

I talk a lot about wanting the church to be a viable "family of choice" for people who are estranged from their families of origin -- as many LGBT folks are, for example. I like the "of choice" part, but I'm getting stuck on the "family" part.

Like marriage, the covenant of baptism could be described as a free choice to restrict my choices. I became a Christian as an adult, with absolutely no social or familial pressure to do so. That undertaking is not to be broken lightly. Like divorcing a spouse, separating from the body of Christ requires a better reason than "just to prove I can".

Trust and autonomy issues are so common for survivors of relational trauma. For some it manifests as high turnover in romantic attachments, for others as difficulty sticking with a career or schooling. Sometimes I even feel trapped by my own commitment to myself to finish my novel, and my obligations to my imaginary characters! It's not a stretch to surmise that the nones include many survivors who are scared to explore their faith in a communal setting, whatever their beliefs.

How can the church meet us where we are, and help us over the threshold?


Be more respectful toward the unchurched. Stop scolding the unaffiliated for their supposed self-centeredness and unwillingness to work hard at relationships. Stop assuming their spirituality is shallow because it doesn't take place within your four walls. Frankly, that reminds me of a boyfriend who called me frigid because I wouldn't sleep with him.

Offer nourishment before demanding commitment. The church, as the embodiment of Christ, should be the first to pledge her love to the potential believer, rather than the other way around. The Bible teaches that God took the initiative with us. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Open communion -- welcoming the baptized and unbaptized to the Eucharist on equal terms -- is for me a profound symbol of this initiative. Several times in the gospels, people first accept nourishment from Jesus and then recognize him and follow him. "They knew him in the breaking of the bread." They don't have to sign a loyalty oath before they get fed.

Provide open, ongoing guidance about skillful communication. People need training in a method like NVC to discuss sensitive personal matters in a non-reactive way. At a minimum, all small-group leaders should be required to take such a class. Otherwise it's like group therapy without a therapist. The more diverse the church, the greater the need for explicit guidance, because not everyone shares the same social cues.

Diversity outreach should start small and go slowly. Pick one issue at a time (e.g. mental health) and set up a working group with a few people who feel strong enough to educate each other out of their prejudices. Don't lay the whole burden on the woman who mentions her sexual assault in a small group and some guy asks "What were you wearing?" because the church didn't do Rape Myths 101 training.

In the church as a whole, the leadership should articulate clear minimum expectations for interpersonal behavior, so that no one feels pressured into being a caretaker for others' trauma. As schools are already doing, offer bystander training to encourage communal intervention against bullying.

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1/28/2014 4:24 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
New Poetry by Conway: "City Elegy V"

I'm pleased to share the latest installment in the "City Elegy" series of prose-poems by my prison pen pal "Conway". I was particularly struck by the metaphors he uses to describe the Los Angeles streetscape. That's first-class noir.

As I interpret the line about the "confidential lunatic's serenade", he's alluding to the confidential "evidence" that the state is allowed to use against his petition for early release, which he is not permitted to review. Due process has a different meaning when you're on the other side of the barbed wire, apparently. For more information, read this 2012 exposé of the prison gang validation system at Mother Jones.

City Elegy V

Stone-cold-dumb, stumbling through this carnival of unforgiveness.

As another dawn rose madly above my city's turning cog.
You know, that overflowing coffee mug of smog, steaming along the Angeles crest.
Traffic lights still pierce the night, painfully pulsing like a stab wound;
Bleeding colors across cracked back sidewalks. Plus the white lines,
stitches down the separated black hem of asphalt lanes.

Here though, chain links and crossed fingers wish for an open door, or
a crusty-assed crack in the floor, of this rusted-out cage of bars
being played like a harp.
Old bits of things, themes echoing gray-stoned ballads, ground up talk.
Now used up chalk, stalking the thirst of first burst freedoms.

Yesterday, they played a confidential lunatic's serenade.

But, I recognized his unclaimed tune, by the scatter-brained beat.
In the heat of officially spun, as it raced away, down storm drains
and ditches. Just to dump the remains of life into an ocean of prisoners.

I knew that sound already. It staggers between
two huge exhaust fans, and the steel sectioned dayroom doors.
Those doors clank open or closed when the cops swagger in.
To drag our chained up skin, outside, then back in --
for discipline or another bus trip to no-where...

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1/23/2014 2:44 PM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Charlie Bondhus: War Poet for the Post-DADT Era

Charlie Bondhus's masterful, heart-wrenching new poetry collection, All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013), could not have been written in any previous generation. In the closeted centuries following the Greco-Roman era, the poetry of gay male love and the poetry of war have only been permitted to overlap in sublimated and metaphorical ways. Bondhus merges them candidly, but the story this book tells is more elegiac than celebratory.

The alternating narrators of Heat, a veteran of the Afghanistan war and his homefront lover, seem free from their forerunners' self-conscious anguish about sexual orientation. They can admit openly how sex between men is like martial arts grappling, how killing can be orgasmic and the camaraderie of soldiers more intimate than lovers. They can savor the flowers in their backyard garden without weighting down those fragile stems with the entire burden of their erotic communication, and without fearing that attention to beauty makes them unmanly.

But despite this unprecedented openness, an unbridgeable rift separates the lovers, and that is the tragedy at the heart of this book. Combat changes the veteran in ways that his partner cannot comprehend first-hand. His feelings are hardened like scar tissue. He can't fit in, can't understand the relevance of the civilian routines that he left behind. He eventually goes back to the war, not because he believes in it, but because it's the only place he feels at home.

The past few years have brought high-profile victories for gay and lesbian inclusion in mainstream (some would say conservative) institutions like marriage, the church, and the military. After the celebrations fade, there's an opportunity to look critically at the social structures into which one has been assimilated. Heat suggests that participation in systems of oppression doesn't end with the waving of the rainbow flag.

Charlie has kindly permitted me to reprint these poems from his collection, which won the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.

Sharing a Bed

I remember the first evening in bed,
making love with the lights on.

Outside the window, a hanging basket
of red impatiens
and a ruby-throated hummingbird.

In late spring's greenish light
my head was a bowed peony,
      your torso,
      a grand urn
      of tissuey ranunculus.

Summer found us sharing a home
with mismatched furniture,
plagues of ragweed and clover
choking the thin, dark spaces
between our together-time.

Like angel's trumpet, I craved
the cool white suddenness
the moon brings,
and when it came
      silent as a cloud
our limbs were not the marble of roses,
or the patrician regularity of zinnias,
but the cheap, unsung beauty
of daisies, wild pinks.

Hornets nested in our heads.
Butterflies settled on our eyelids.
Morning's first finches began to sing.

My arms were full of nettles and lamb's ear.


Wood Gathering

In November we gather
straight branches into bundles,
and carry them

past flowerbeds
we stopped tending
last spring, to the shed

door which always sticks
in cold weather.
I want to ask you

how long since the seasons
became the same,
neither sun

nor perennials penetrating
our ribs, to the place where organs
slump like frozen vegetables?

When the snow starts,
you will cross
the backyard, and tugging

and grunting, pull open
the shed, where what
we've gathered is stacked neatly

as bones. Wordless
(we have no use for lips),
you will track dirt and ice

across the carpetless floors
and drop the flaking
wood on the fire,

filling the house
with the easier
kind of warmth.

First, pink rushes
to fingertips. Next,
skin cracks as heat

refills the heart
like hot water
into a cold glass. And then

like a body
from a thawing lake,

and bumping heavily
against the sheet ice:
a pulse

or what remains of love,
brushing the underside
of the wrist,

a feeling
brittle as firewood,
finite as frost.

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1/22/2014 2:57 PM | View Comments (3) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Trust Your Imaginary Friends, and Don't Scare the Horses

As a fiction writer and a person of faith, I can be stymied by worries over what is "real" versus "in my head". Where is the line that separates fictional archetypes and imaginative projections from a genuine encounter with an unseen deity, and what distinguishes both of those experiences from the voices heard by the mentally ill?

I've never forgotten a Buddhist workshop I took a decade ago, which gave me a refreshing perspective on the question. The Western philosophical model, especially in its post-Enlightenment form, draws a sharp distinction between subjective and objective, self and world, which is foreign to Eastern thought. In Buddhism, the instructor said, the interpersonal realm of consensus reality and the interior landscape of the individual are both equally real, in the sense that they are part of our experience, and both equally illusory, because these transient specific manifestations are not the ultimate form of pure Being.

So what is sanity? Western rationalist psychology tries to diminish your involvement with the voices in your mind, and to refocus your attention toward external interactions. By contrast, a spiritual or artistic ideal of mental health might emphasize mindfulness about which realm you are in, and equanimity or non-attachment so that you don't get lost in one dimension and lose touch with the others.

Sometimes it seems to me that religion, like writing a novel, is an attempt to introduce other people to your imaginary friends. If enough of them also develop a relationship with Jesus (or Captain Kirk), your inner world becomes the consensus reality, and you've just shifted the reference point of sanity in your direction. Conversely, what we call mental illness may be a real inner experience that the patient can't get others to believe, or can't express in consensus language because she confuses literal facts with metaphors. (For more on this point, see Gail Hornstein's groundbreaking book Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness.)

And then something happens that really does feel like a message from the Beyond. While undertaking the Great Book Purge of my office this week, I discovered one of my notebooks from 2000-2001. (My inner child must have bought this one, since the cover art is a wistful dragon on a bed of petunias, gazing at the moon.) In it I found my notes from the Buddhist workshop I mentioned above, as well as the teacher's name and the workshop theme, which I'd been unable to recall: "The Spiritual Problem of Giving Yourself Away" by Polly Young-Eisendrath, April 29, 2001, at Tibet House.

Here are some excerpts from those notes. It appears that this was a workshop for women about boundaries and self-realization versus selflessness in our spiritual practice. Any errors in reproducing the original presentation are my own.

...Many religious teachings focus on letting go of the individual self, particularly in meditation. But women who read that often feel, mistakenly, that they should stop working on self-development. But what's meant by letting go is that you give up a certain attitude towards the self -- not that you give up functioning as a self.

The religious language of letting go presumes that you already have a secure personal sovereignty over yourself -- that you have been acting on your free will and are conscious of your intentions. Self-determination is part of a spiritual life, not something you want to give up...Self-determination means that you know you can live with the consequences of what you do...


...Buddhism involves ethical practice, wisdom practice, and meditation practice. You need all three. After a certain point, you can't do it alone. If you go too deeply into meditation practice, you may have powerful mental experiences that you can't understand or cope with by yourself.

Impermanence, change, limitation, interdependence, and compassion are the conditions of reality. Also mystery -- the uniqueness of every moment, every being, inspires awe. Learning to cope with these conditions is the goal of all religions.

A meditative state dissolves the sense of consensual reality (the agreed-on world of ordinary perceptions), which can be dangerous. You may get lost in the other mental realm of images and forces, the archetypes [Young-Eisendrath is a Jungian], etc. Shamans can go into that realm and draw power from it. The goal is to push beyond that to experience the transcendent source. You don't want to be attached to that realm, because then you get distracted or go nuts.

People kill each other over religion because they identify with some image in that realm, and then say "my entity kicks your entity's ass". They're not experiencing the oneness of things, but are stuck on the images or manifestations without having clarity in observing them...

The realm of the archetypes is real, though it isn't the ultimate reality. That's because Buddhism doesn't make the distinction between self and object. The angel is in your head and is real. You just have to know which realm a thing belongs to! Your goal, in this life, is not to stay in the transcendent source, but to be more mindful in every realm, including the ordinary one where we spend most of our time...

Other gems in this notebook include a career self-assessment questionnaire from 2000, when I quit the legal profession:

"If I had six months to live, I would: Get baptized. Eat fattening food whenever I wanted it. Finish my damn novel already. Write nasty letters to any influential person I'm currently pissed at. Write a short inspirational book about why I came to Jesus."

"Write a description of myself: My personal style is intellectually rigorous but emotionally nurturing...Outside work, my interests are poetry, spirituality, dolls, cooking, fashion, and a lot of other girly shit."

And who can argue with this bit of wisdom from my 2002 New York State driver's ed class: "When can you use a horn? Not when passing a horse -- you might scare it."

I got my license (in Massachusetts) on the fifth try. The horse was not to blame.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
1/13/2014 12:40 PM | View Comments (3) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)
Thoughts from the Great Book Purge of 2014

This year, I resolved to lose 200 pounds. Of books.

We are surgically attached to our iPhones in this house, so much so that Shane's first instance of imaginative play was holding a block up to his ear and pretending to talk to it. However, I haven't been able to warm up to reading e-books. Reading screen-by-screen feels like driving at night, with no way to see what's outside the small range of my headlights. I like to be able to orient myself, at a glance, about what came before and how far along I am. If a book isn't lying on my bedside table, kitchen table, bathroom shelf, dining room table, or desk, I forget that I'm reading it. As a result, my ever-growing collection is shelved in archaeological strata rather than any thematic order.

Last summer, I undertook the Great Closet Purge. Out went the uncomfortable lawyer shoes and matronly satin blouses, the miniskirts from my single year of stress-induced slenderness, and the flowery print dresses that had served my mother's fantasy of molding a 1980s teenager into a Victorian ingenue. Something had shifted inside me, letting me understand that I could release these past selves while still honoring them.

The Great Book Purge has a similar intention. Besides de-cluttering my space, I'm seizing this opportunity to face and accept the changes in my worldview over the past two decades.

It's making me very uncomfortable.

How did my idea of a good book go from Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education to Richard Labonte's Best of Best Gay Erotica 2? Why do I no longer have the patience to read sentences like, "This is a form of postmodern liberationist hermeneutics in which the non-relativist convictions of a liberation ethic stand in uneasy tension with the assumption that hermeneutics has no critical-objective element"?[1]

When I was first drawn to Christianity as a teenager, the elegant complexity and logical coherence of Christian theology comprised a big part of the appeal. Right now, I happen to be in a stage of development where those same features feel like intellectual defenses against the direct apprehension of God in my heart and my body. I believe that head and heart will come into greater equilibrium down the line, so I'm not tossing all my academic books. The other night I opened to a random page in Paul Hessert's Christ and the End of Meaning, a book I've owned for two decades and never read, and wrestled with a passage about the gap between "God" as a religious concept and THE LORD as an actually experienced Presence.[2] That's what I'm talking about -- or not talking about!

Rather than the accessibility of the writing style, the weightiest factor in my book purge is whether the author is conscious of the limitations and privileges of his subject position, as Hessert appears to be. Because I'm bringing the personal and empathetic aspects of religion into the foreground as never before, I have to feel a relationship of trust toward an author, and that requires a certain measure of political self-awareness and psychological transparency on his part. (I'm deliberately using the male pronoun.)

Thus, I have trouble getting past a passage like this one, although the rest of the book seems reasonably progressive and egalitarian for a Baptist professor. The author is posing a hypothetical to illustrate how a pastor might apply the Biblical rule against divorce when a parishioner is being beaten by her husband:

"I must (among other things) make at least some tentative moral judgment about what levels and kinds of spousal violence warrant divorcing a violent spouse...I can analogize from my presumptive rule against divorce only if I can establish for myself the kinds of cases of spousal violence under which the rule against divorce ought to be observed."[3]

I'll make it easy for you, Chuck: NONE OF THEM.

To me, this quote reveals an unexamined sense of entitlement to pass judgment on a survivor's determination of her own safety, in the name of "Biblical rules". Christianity has a big problem with this, both because of its history of patriarchal leadership and because the Cross is a tricky symbol that can be misunderstood to encourage non-redemptive suffering. I believe a person has an absolute right to escape abuse, and we grossly misconceive religious morality when we treat it as a source of competing interests to "balance" against her survival.

Because of my greater understanding of trauma and the false beliefs it induces, most of my heavily Calvinist-evangelical books are also destined for a new home. That sense of pervasive badness and helplessness, in myself and humanity generally, now seems like an artifact of my unsafe upbringing. The further I get from that self-concept, the more I feel clear, energized, compassionate, creative, and loved by God. But I honor that worldview as a transitional resting place on the way to where I am now. Liberals, if you know a Calvinist, be nice to her. Someone probably messed with her pretty badly. Don't brush her off with the feel-good foolishness that "sin is just an illusion". That's why Who Told You That You Were Naked? is also on the discard pile (despite its enticing title), with my margin notes from the 1990s saying "No, abuse is real!"[4]

And while we're on the subject of wishful thinking, my newfound determination to dispel all psychological illusions is making me generally suspicious of theology, and even of faith itself. Both liberal and conservative religious books seem united in pushing people's attention away from themselves and out toward some more-worthy "other", either a morally superior deity or the unfortunate neighbor in need of our charity. From an Alice Miller perspective, this looks like a concerted effort to avoid feeling our own trauma and caring for the neglected child inside. Mainstream theology tells us: "We are bad but God is good...we are helpless but God is in control...we are selfish but others deserve the sacrifice of our lives." What is that except a collective elaboration of the protective denial that forced us to idealize our abusive parents?

Truth be told, my magical-thinking machine hasn't worked right since 2009, when I underwent a painful break with my evangelical friends over "the Gay Issue" at the same time as a longed-for adoption match fell through. Bitterly, I saw in retrospect how I'd ignored the warning signs in both situations, taking at face value the selective facts that supported my longing for love and connection.

And now that I do have a child at last, I'm even less sure what to make of God's role in all this. Like the Psalmist, I want to thank and praise God for fulfilling God's promises--but while I was wandering in the wilderness, it wasn't apparent that anything had been promised to me. I wasn't Sarai, Hannah, Elizabeth or Mary. I received no prophecy, no guarantees. When friends would say, "I believe God will send you the child who's meant to be yours," I wanted to scream, How do you know anything about it? The folks in my life who had slung God-talk most confidently were also the ones whose God was cruel and arbitrary toward non-heteronormative love. Why shouldn't I fear that my infertility, like a same-sex attraction, made me one of God's cast-offs? My subsequent good fortune feels equally random, unless I can find the error in this whole way of thinking about God's sovereignty and human suffering.

Hessert's distinction between "God"-as-concept and THE LORD suggests a way out of dead-end theodicies. We can't think our way through the problem of pain, but we can recognize the struggle as the holy ground where we encounter God. He writes:

"LORD," then, is not synonymous with "God" in the language of order or "Supreme Being" (or some other concept) of Western philosophy. We are likely to misinterpret "The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed" (Ps. 103:6) as "There is a Supreme Being who controls history providentially so that social justice is divinely assured, whatever people may do." This is patently not the case...

[W]e can avoid begging the question as to whether or not there is a "Supreme Being" and to what extent this Being controls history. We can say simply that the working of social justice, vindicating the oppressed, is one of those contexts in which "the LORD" is to be named. We may not always see vindication and justice where we should like to. But where they are evident, the awe attending the mystery bordering our experience is called forth.[5]
That's the kind of faith that attracts me now: A practiced readiness to notice the in-breaking of God's presence, but without any required conceptual filters or compulsory emotions (optimism, self-abasement) that interfere with clear perception of what is actually happening in my world.

Bauckham & Hart's Hope Against Hope (which I also haven't read yet) is on the keeper pile because of this passage:

Not all hopelessness is bad for us, let alone dehumanizing. Hopelessness can be a perfectly healthy condition and, correspondingly, hope can be pathological...Hope has its legitimate limits, and it is vital that we identify them correctly lest we mistakenly invest ourselves in a dead end, an option with no future...

[H]ope is no mere heroic subjective disposition of the individual, an attitude which, regardless of what faces it, soldiers on, refusing to accept defeat long after the battle has been lost, convinced that through its striving and contrivance things may yet be turned around. Real hope is far less focused on its own capabilities. It is not concerned with some supposed right or capacity to choose and to create for itself the reality which it desires. Real hope is essentially rooted in the qualities and capacities of otherness, of that which lies beyond itself in other people, in the 'real world'. It is, in [Jesuit writer William] Lynch's words, 'an interior sense that there is help on the outside of us'...In [George] Steiner's sense it is a wager on transcendence, on something which lies beyond us, as yet unseen but, we believe, real enough.[6]

You had me at George Steiner.

"When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins."

[1] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Eerdmans, 2002), p.164.
[2] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Element, 1993), pp.68-75.
[3] Cosgrove, p.71.
[4] John Jacob Raub, Who Told You That You Were Naked? (Crossroad, 1992).
[5] Hessert, pp.73-74.
[6] Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Eerdmans, 1999), p.62.

Posted by Jendi Reiter at
1/8/2014 11:21 AM | View Comments (0) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (0)