Book Review Roundup: They Tried to Make Me Go to Rehab

Welcome back, readers. Blogging has been light this month while I prepare my Two Natures galleys for submission to book review journals. If you are a reviewer and would like an advance reading copy (Kindle edition), email me.

I’ve read more good books this spring than I’ve had time to blog about individually, so in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some roundups of books-in-brief, grouped around various themes.

If you want to scare your teenagers away from alcohol and drugs, Gil Fagiani’s new poetry collection Logos (Guernica Editions, 2016) and Eve Tushnet’s debut novel Amends (CreateSpace, 2015) present a brutally honest and unglamorous look at addiction and the difficulties of recovery. And they’re much funnier, and better-written, than any PSA.

Logos is a collection of persona poems set at a heroin treatment center of that name, in the South Bronx in the 1960s. It comes out of Fagiani’s own experience, first as an inpatient there, and later as a social worker at a Bronx psychiatric hospital and the director of a rehab center in Brooklyn. The desperation of addiction has a way of levelling distinctions between races, classes, and professional backgrounds. The first-person narrator of some of these poems, presumably a stand-in for the poet’s younger self, stepped off the privileged path of a military college cadet to do anti-poverty activism in Spanish Harlem, where he got caught up in the drug culture. But his delusional, hand-to-mouth life is no different from the teen prostitutes and con men who are rooting through the same garbage cans for the dregs of liquor bottles. In this poetry collection, Fagiani expresses gratitude for the program that turned his life around, while showing that its zero-tolerance methods condemned some other residents to fall back into deadly habits.

“Logos” is a traditional term for the Godhead in Christian theology, based on the description of Jesus as the divine Word in the Gospel of John. However, the only god in evidence for most of the poor souls in this treatment center is the director, nicknamed “The Great Him”, who justifies his humiliating punishment regime on the grounds that addicts are all manipulative, self-centered liars who need to be tough-loved into submission. As Fagiani notes in the introduction, Logos was a peer-led community inspired by Chuck Dederich’s Synanon, which used confrontational “encounter sessions” to “strip down a person’s defense mechanisms to uncover the real person.”

Tushnet’s Amends takes aim at this very notion that the self is some nugget of sincerity we can excavate from the dross of social performance, rather than something we construct–and reveal to ourselves–in the act of choosing which personae to perform. In troubling our moralistic judgments about surface and depth, and in the humane values underpinning her aphoristic wit, she shows herself to be an aesthetic heir to Oscar Wilde.

The premise of Amends is pure 21st-century but its concerns are as old as the Garden of Eden. A half-dozen alcoholics from all walks of life are selected for a reality-TV show set in a residential rehab clinic. When healing and repentance become co-opted into the postmodern performance of identity, is transformative grace still possible? Sometimes, incredibly, it is, but not always, and not in a fashion that anyone associated with the show could control or predict.

Tushnet, a popular blogger on Catholic sexual ethics, is (for the most part) an equal-opportunity satirist. The Christian doubletalk of crisis pregnancy centers, pretentious queer theater, and aging Young Turk neo-conservative columnists are all grist for her mill. Her indictment of our society is sharp, yet love can still break through our egotistic illusions, as in the poignant, redemptive “bromance” between Gair, a celibate gay Christian athlete, and Dylan, his straight frat-boy best friend, whose drunken antics become less adorable as he ages.

In my opinion, the only flaw in this hilarious and heartbreaking novel is the character Sharptooth, a whiny young woman who identifies as a wolf. She is depicted rather two-dimentionally with all of the insulting stereotypes typically leveled at fringe identities–basically, a phony who wants to call attention to herself because strange identities are trendy and allow you to win power struggles by calling the other person an oppressor. However, “otherkin” is a real identity category that some people sincerely believe applies to them, a fact that most of Tushnet’s readers probably don’t know. To me it seemed like “punching-down” humor to mock a group of people who rarely have any positive representation to counter this depiction. Whatever you think of otherkin, I felt some vicarious shame whenever she came onstage, because trauma survivors and genderqueer people are often silenced with the same caricature that we just want to be treated like special snowflakes. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book. Read it for the jokes, stay for the grace.

April Links Roundup: Noli Me Tangere

Happy Easter! No, I’m not late. Episcopalians celebrate the liturgical season of Easter for 50 days. That’s a lot of Cadbury Creme Eggs.

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No one out-femmes me.

The post-resurrection wounds of Jesus have long been precious to me as a symbol of new life after trauma–a kind of healing that doesn’t mean forgetting. One of the most beautiful examples is this Easter meditation, “The Scars”, from the post-evangelical feminist blog Tell Me Why the World is Weird. What an original and poignant interpretation of Christ’s words to Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not.”

There was so much to do! Forty more days on earth- he would need to talk with all of his followers. And he suspected the first one would be Mary Magdalene.

And there she was. The first to visit the tomb. She stood with her head down, crying. With one hand she held the bag of spices she had prepared for his body.

He walked closer to her and said “hello.”

She didn’t look up. “Please sir. They’ve taken my Lord away… sir could you tell me… tell me where they’ve put him and I’ll go get him.”


“Rabboni!” she cried, and ran at him with outstretched arms.

OH NO NO NO, he thought. Oh geez no touching. He froze. He couldn’t think. He tried to make words, to say something that would stop her. No touching. “Do not hold on to me!” he blurted out, and Mary backed away. Oh, thank goodness. Okay, try to play it off cool, say something profound. He looked at her and took a deep breath. “… for I have not yet returned to my father. Go to my disciples and tell them.”

She wiped tears from her eyes. “Yes, Lord,” she said.

“I have to go. You go tell them, okay?”

Before I figured out where the story was headed, this Jesus reminded me of someone with autism or sensory processing disorder, who might be distressed by all the hugging that Christians are supposed to do in church. I believe the Incarnation gives us permission to imagine the Jesus we need, a divine being who fully participates in human experience–not some supposedly universal experience, but the distinct reality of each person, including neurodiversity.

Do you know why it took me 8 years to write the Endless Novel? Not just because I was simultaneously leaving my abusive parent, changing my belief system, adopting a child, and writing poetry books. Without Julian (the novel’s hero), I couldn’t have done any of those things. In fact, I was stuck because I was afraid God was angry at me for how much I loved Julian. Every time I hit a rough patch in the writing, I thought God was withdrawing the mandate of heaven from me, like King Saul. Libby Anne, an atheist raised in a fundamentalist homeschooled family, explains why in this post at her blog Love, Joy, Feminism: “Do You Love God More than You Love Your Children?”

[T]his is actually fairly standard evangelical teaching. The idea is that we all have things in our life that we risk loving or valuing more than we love and value God, and that that’s a problem. Our pastors, youth group leaders, parents, and Bible study material used the story of Isaac to teach us that we needed to be willing to sacrifice—or give up—whatever we valued more than God.

The reference, of course, is a Bible story in which God commanded Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice, and Abraham obeyed God but was stopped by an Angel at the last moment…

…No parent should have to worry that their love for their children might get in the way of their love for God. No spouse should have to worry that, no child, no friend. Love should not be a thing to be afraid of, and we should not have to fear valuing others.

As a parent, I love seeing my children work together and value each other. I love seeing them show love for each other. When they fight, it makes me sad, because I love them both and I want them to love each other too. Why would I, as a parent, be jealous of my children’s love for each other? Why would I worry that their love for each other would in some way compromise their love for me? If I told them that they had to love me more than they loved each other, or that they had to be willing to sacrifice their feelings for each other if those feelings got in the way of their feelings for me, I would be abusive and manipulative to the extreme.

And yet, that is what I was taught God does.

Imagine a boyfriend telling his girlfriend that she has to love him more than her parents, or her friends. Imagine him jealously watching her actions for any signs that she might value those others more than she values him. Imagine him shaming her if she spends what he considers too much time with her friends. We would term this abuse without qualm or reservation. Love for family or friends does not have to have any negative impact on love for a partner, and in a healthy relationship love is given and accepted freely, not under terms of guilt and coercion.

Please “Like” Julian on Facebook and follow his fashion picks on Pinterest. It’s not a sin!

At the Little Red Tarot blog, my favorite source for queer and alternative Tarot interpretations, co-editor Andi Grace interviews Tarot reader and zine writer Maranda Elizabeth about trauma, disability justice, “madness”, and poverty as themes of her spiritual practice.

Because trauma, madness, chronic illness, and disability are core pieces of who I am, it would be completely impossible for my Tarot practice not to be influenced by them. When I draw cards, I don’t get to escape my traumas or illnesses; I don’t get to set my diagnoses aside each time I shuffle a deck. Nor would I wish to! Trauma recovery dares me to learn new methods of being, and so does Tarot.

I think about how one effect of trauma can be to damage one’s imagination and creativity – the fight-flight-freeze responses can become so ingrained – not to mention the realities of coping with pain and poverty – that it’s hard to imagine being able to live a more fulfilling, magical, and dreamy life. And while trauma is real, and oppression is real, and poverty is real, Tarot is one way to (re-)develop the imagination and creativity that may have been injured due to traumatic upbringings and experiences.

Madness, illness, creativity, and spirituality are continually invalidated parts of my life, and yet they are the most crucial – they are my entire being. While I’m often quiet about my spiritual practices (I’m a solitary, and I think about, “to know / to will / to dare / to keep silent” a whole lot), I also feel the need to connect magic and trauma, and to talk about healing as a non-linear, unending process – I will always be healing, not healed, recovering, not recovered. Sometimes I get sick of talking about trauma, but it continues to permeate everything, so I have little choice.

Tarot helps me cope. It helps me access internal resources, acts as a healing tool and writing prompt, and shows me where I have agency in my life. Tarot works against existential despair and hopelessness, and connects me to something else. It helps me find magic in the mundane. Tarot helps me resist meaninglessness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. Also, I feel like it gives me permission to be a weirdo, to be kind of a fuck-up, and to find meaning that way.

Read an extended discussion of these subjects on Maranda’s blog and put some money in her tip jar.