Sisters in Healing: Poetry from Margaret Gish Miller’s “Blood Moon Weather”

English Literature teacher Margaret Gish Miller may be retired, but she’s not resting on her laurels. At age 70, she has published her first poetry collection, Blood Moon Weather, through Dancing Moon Press. In it she lovingly depicts the bond between sisters healing from paternal incest, and looks back with wisdom and self-acceptance at the formative moments of her growth to womanhood.

The poems are written in a simple narrative mode, without stylistic tricks, yet a close reading reveals how nonlinear and complex the story really is. The gaps between facts are not visible on the page but in the mind. Small sensory details and isolated events are vividly remembered while the significance of their juxtaposition is left for the reader to ponder, like retrieving a traumatic memory in non-chronological fragments. At times the incompleteness left me unsatisfied, wanting to know the context for an anecdote, or to draw closer to characters who fascinate from a distance. But this is the kind of personal material that a writer often has to approach in stages, relieved, as here, with lighter and life-affirming poems about love and desire in her long marriage.

Margaret has kindly allowed me to reprint a sample poem below. Read Ed Bennett’s positive review in the July 2016 issue of Quill & Parchment.


Like lingerie
suspended in
space inside
an aquarium

their pastels delicate,
soft as roses with thorns.
For they say jellyfish

have no heart and
sting in self-
preservation, a part

of their seductive
water dance.
I must have

had the heart
of a jellyfish
at twelve.

For that man, in his
fisherman’s fascination,
caught me. Kept me
as his own. And I
repeatedly stung
myself for this.

This debris
of my heart so sore
I soar into this space

and time
to gather the girl
that was you.

August Links Roundup: The Negative in Sex-Positive

This past March I attended the 5 College Queer Gender & Sexuality Conference at Hampshire College. One of the best workshops was “Sex-Negativity Never Happened”, led by Skramz Geist, a radical philosophy professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We talked about how the “sex-positive” norm in queer communities can be exploited to push people’s sexual boundaries or create an uncomfortably sexualized environment. A theme that emerged was that no community rules are immune to subversion by a determined predator, whether they’re the consent and communication scripts of queer and kink spaces, or the rigid sexual boundaries in conservative churches, where I once sought protection from an emotionally numb and risky hookup culture. I read very little theology anymore, because it failed to perform what for me was its prime function: identifying safe people and creating safe spaces.

Very few hits come up when I Google “compulsory sexuality”, which is sad because this concept would have taught my 20-year-old self that feminism was about more than the right to get drunk at frat parties and have abortions. This 2010 review of Andrea Dworkin’s Right-Wing Women, from the feminist blog Fannie’s Room, provided a rare moment of validation for my motives in becoming a Young Republican:

Dworkin argues that, for good reason, Rightwing women fear the Left. The Left of the sixties was “a dream of sexual transcendence…. It was- for the girls- a dream of being less female in a world less male; an eroticization of sibling equality, not male domination” (91). What this meant in practice, however, was that it essentially freed men to fuck women “without bourgeois constraints” (91). What this meant for women was “an intensification of the experience of being sexually female- the precise opposite of what these girls had envisioned for themselves….freedom for women existed in being fucked more often by more men, a sort of lateral mobility in the same inferior sphere” (93). The Left, that is, continued to construct women as sex, while men continued to be constructed as the Doers Of Important Things.

Further, “sexual liberation” created an expectation that the sexually liberated were ready for sex at any time, effectively negating the concept of consent. Those who were not ready for sex were considered “repressed,” not liberated. For women, for whom pregnancy was sometimes an outcome of this sex free-for-all and for whom abortion was illegal, the consequences of sex were higher than for men. Rightwing women feared sexual liberation as it meant unfettered male sexual access to women, and possibly pregnancy, without the expectation of male support via traditional marriage.

This scenario was all too true for the many women who were mentored and sexually harassed by prominent theologian John Howard Yoder in the 1970s-90s, as history professor Rachel Waltner Goossen details in “Mennonite Bodies, Sexual Ethics”, a recent essay from the Journal of Mennonite Studies, reprinted at the sexual abuse survivor blog Our Stories Untold. Yoder is still widely cited and revered for his theology of pacifism, despite brave dissenters who point out that we should be skeptical of nonresistance preached by a sexual predator. Goossen observes:

For several decades, through the 1970s and 1980s, Yoder approached women with sexual invitations and intimidating behavior at the seminary, at academic and church conferences, and in homes, cars, and gathering places across the U.S., Canada, and a host of international settings. The women’s experiences varied widely. While each was acquainted with Yoder in some way, most of these women were not known to one another nor aware of Yoder’s sexual aggressiveness toward others. (One woman, married and much younger than Yoder, whom he surprised in the mid- 1970s with sexualized physical touching and who reacted with instant rebuke, later remembered the incident as deeply troubling: “It messes with the mind. I wondered, am I special to him? Is he lonely?”10)

Yoder justified his sexual approaches to women as theologically driven. He solicited help from female students and others, describing his entreaties as part of an “experiment” in sexual ethics in which he and a circle of “sisters” tested ideas about sexual intimacy outside marriage. For approximately eight years, over the objections of his supervisor at the seminary, president Marlin Miller, Yoder offered biblical justifications for his behavior based on Jesus’ ministry to women and what Yoder termed “the freedom of the Gospel.”11 Yoder argued that his ministrations to women were potentially therapeutic, and although he lacked formal training in psychological counseling, maintained that he wanted to help women overcome feelings of taboo. He intended to “defang” (or tame) “the beast,” he said, helping Christians to reject notions of sexuality as “a beast or a slippery slope which is … uncontrollable.”12

Yoder’s speculative project, arising as part of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, coincided with widening societal expectations about consensual sex. Although sexualized violence against women in the United States did not intensify markedly during the sexual revolution, one leading historian of the era notes that “In the new sexual order, the standard for consent had to be renegotiated. Why would a woman say no if sex presumably resulted in no harm? And who would believe that a woman had withheld consent, given new expectations of participation in the sexual revolution?”13 At a historical moment when lines were blurring about what constituted permissible sex, Yoder exploited notions that loosening sexual boundaries portended no harm.

The historian being cited in footnote 13 is Estelle Freedman, Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). Hat tip to @GrumpyTheology for this article. Follow her for truth and cat pictures.

Consent and Altsex Culture is another recent gem of a post from Thing of Things, a funny and thought-provoking blog about philosophy, neurodivergence, gender, and nerdy special interests.

…[I]n our culture sex-positivity has a distressing tendency to collapse into compulsory sexuality.

What happens in a lot of cases is something like this: in conventional patriarchal culture, there are people women are supposed to fuck (their husbands) and people women are not supposed to fuck (everyone else). There is a socially legitimate reason for a woman to say ‘no’ to sex to anyone who isn’t her husband. And while there might not be much concept that women can say ‘no’ to sex with their husbands (remember that marital rape only became illegal in every US state in the nineties), most husbands are not rapists, genuinely love and care about their partners, and have no desire to have sex with their wife when she doesn’t want sex. While this is a terrible system in a lot of respects, it did reduce the harm of compulsory sexuality for many women.

Unfortunately, in this system, the natural way to do sex-positivity is to expand the set of people women are supposed to fuck. It is limiting to only have one person you’re supposed to fuck! Now you are supposed to fuck all your friends, or all the people in this intentional community, or everyone! Isn’t that great? We’re helping!

And, of course, if you’re supposed to have sex with a lot more people, then you’re much more likely to have sex with a rapist, or with someone who grew up in a culture that doesn’t give a shit about consent and who doesn’t have any reason to care about your emotional well-being. You’re a stranger, after all.

The worst excesses of the free love movement in the sixties birthed radical feminism, which instituted the rule that sex that one person involved did not want is rape. Most alternative sexuality communities seem to work under a similar rule today. This is a serious improvement, which I am not going to criticize.

However, I worry that a lot of alternative sexuality culture lends itself well to compulsory sexuality in more subtle ways…

…How can we fix this problem? I think part of the solution is just talking about it and trying to be aware of the pressures in our communities and the way that they make some people feel unwelcome. Another part is to explicitly work on including not just the sluts but the prudes in sex positivity– not just the people who want sex more or in different ways than society approves of, but the people who want sex less or don’t like some of the socially accepted kinds of sex. (Not, of course, that these are mutually exclusive.) And I do wonder if there are any simple changes we could make in communities dominated by kinky, poly, slutty, cuddle-prone etc. people to make them more welcoming to vanilla, asexual, monogamous, low-libido, not-in-favor-of-cuddling-strangers etc. people, without sacrificing our own needs and values.

Ozy’s blog is an unusual place: the comments are intelligent, and trolling is swiftly stopped. The ones below this post are worth a read. And of course feel free to share your own experiences and suggested solutions in my comments box too.

Don’t #DiagnoseTrump: How Progressives Exploit Mental Health Stigma

Cards on the table: I preferred Bernie Sanders’ leftist economics but am content to vote for Hillary Clinton this fall. Neither the persona nor the politics of Donald Trump hold any appeal for me. That decision made, I’ve skipped most of the election coverage that clutters my newsfeed. But I haven’t been able to ignore the slew of headlines labelling The Donald with various mental illnesses and personality disorders, culminating in the Twitter hashtag #DiagnoseTrump. This level of ableism from my supposed progressive allies scares me almost as much as a Republican president’s Supreme Court picks.

Speculative diagnosis of public figures is a common, yet basically unethical, tactic in modern journalism. The trend has gotten so out of hand in this election that the American Psychiatric Association had to issue a warning, as reported in yesterday’s Washington Post. The APA publicly reminded its members of the “Goldwater Rule” it issued in 1964 in response to a similar feeding frenzy around another GOP presidential candidate:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

Simply put, it’s inappropriate to diagnose someone you haven’t treated as a patient, or to share that diagnosis without their permission.

My concern is not so much for Trump’s feelings or privacy, as for the climate of fear and shame this diagnosis-mania creates for ordinary people with mental health conditions. “Nothing about us without us” is the guiding principle of disability activism. To make better policies that protect the mentally ill and support their recovery, we need elected officials who’ve experienced the problems firsthand and are motivated to prioritize them. This can’t happen when we think it’s fair game to mock and disqualify any candidate with a diagnosis.

Moreover, there’s a huge difference between diagnosing someone in order to help them heal, and diagnosing in order to humiliate or silence them, which is what #DiagnoseTrump is all about. The latter is an abuse of power, plain and simple, which many of us have already encountered in our brushes with the psychiatric profession. Sometimes I think social workers should be required to give Miranda warnings. The current political discourse reinforces our fear of seeking professional help.

It gives me great anxiety to see my liberal friends on social media happily sharing bullshit from wellness guru Deepak Chopra about how Trump is “emotionally retarded”, and to have them push back when I explain how this language makes life harder for the non-neurotypical. Is Trump a narcissist? Maybe, but for what it’s worth, I was once diagnosed with narcissism for talking faster than the clinician could take notes, needing hourly bathroom breaks, being a virgin when I got married, and not being able to take a multiple-choice test when the radio was on. If the GOP is looking for a replacement candidate, I’m ready to serve.

For additional disability-informed perspectives on politics and daily life, follow @thisisableism, @riotheatherr, @crippledscholar, @theoriesofminds, @punkinonwheels, and @rsocialskills on Twitter.

Julian Gets Around: New “Two Natures” Reviews and Author Interviews

The countdown continues to the launch of Two Natures on September 15! Readings are scheduled for New York City, Northampton, and Greenfield, MA this fall. Watch this space or visit our Facebook page for exact times and directions. With guidance from The Frugal Book Promoter, I’ve garnered some encouraging pre-publication reviews and author interviews online. Here are the latest stops on Julian’s PR tour.

Our Queer Art, a project of Canada’s QueerDeer Media, profiled me on July 27. An excerpt from the interview:

What do you define yourself as? Or do you not? Why/Why not?
I define myself as a creative artist whose medium is writing. A revelatory and sometimes painful aspect of writing Two Natures was facing the truth that this identity is more fundamental than other labels that I thought would fit me forever, including “Christian” and “female”.

How long have you been practicing?
I’ve been a writer since before I could write! I dictated my first poems to my parents when I was about 4. They were about fairy princesses, of course.

What interests you about your medium or why do you use this medium?
I grew up in a family that loved books. The magic of communing with characters from an intangible world was my first, and (I’m finally realizing) my most formative, spiritual experience. It’s a great honor to be able to practice that magic myself.

What kind of work do you want to create, or what work are you inspired by that you would like to strive for/emulate?
I am inspired by artists who challenge binary thinking, whose work offers both sensual pleasure and an intelligent perspective on the human condition. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch are ambitious in this way: action melodramas that are also philosophical treatises on the troubled relationship between art and morality. So are some of my favorite works of fiction that blend horror and political critique, such as George Saunders’ Pastoralia, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (a Cthulhu Mythos pastiche set in the Jim Crow South), and Jenna Leigh Evans’ Prosperity (an American dystopia set in debtor’s prison, winner of our 2015 Winning Writers North Street Book Prize for genre fiction). The poetry collections that are touchstones for me include Atlantis by Mark Doty, The Cow by Ariana Reines, Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, and Live or Die by Anne Sexton.

Trudie Barreras, a popular Amazon Vine reviewer, gave Two Natures a 5-star review on Goodreads:

…[T]his book offers an amazing level of honesty and insight. Like the earlier work of Patricia Nell Warren, Reiter’s representation of gay male psychology and eroticism is clear-eyed and unabashed. Although her descriptions of male-male sexual encounters are no more explicit than the similar descriptions of heterosexual lovemaking in many modern-day romances, some readers may find this unpalatable. To them, I can only say, “Get over it, people!”

Although Reiter is investigating the link between sexuality and spirituality in this narrative, as well as presenting a deeply incisive exploration of the social and cultural aspects of the urban LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, she is not heavy-handed or in any way “preachy”. Her main characters and many of the peripheral cast members are sympathetically and vividly described. Julian himself is voiced with wry and biting humor.

A trigger warning: for those who, like me, have “been there and done that” with respect to losing dear ones to AIDS, and who have experienced the anger, disgust and grief resulting from the vicious and callous rejection of gays – especially those stricken with HIV – by the so-called Christian establishment, the honesty of this book is stark…

Book blogger Amos Lassen wrote in this July 13 review:

It is a pleasure to read a novel that is literary in all of its aspects. I also found that the issue of faith that is so important to me is beautifully handled here… We all know someone like Julian and many of us see ourselves in him. The highest praise that I can give this book is to say that ‘I love it’ and I do. Julian is an everyman and in that he is a composite of so many gay personalities. You owe to yourselves to read this wonderful novel.

A.M. Leibowitz, author of the excellent gay Christian novel Passing on Faith and many others, scored Two Natures 10 out of 10 fountain pens in this Aug. 1 review and author interview. She doesn’t let Julian off the hook for his moral failings, though!

This is a difficult book for me to review. On the one hand, despite its length, it’s surprisingly fast-paced. There isn’t a lot of wasted space; everything has a purpose, so it doesn’t feel as though it’s lagging anywhere in terms of moving forward. The writing style is superior, in the style of the best literary fiction. At the same time, my reaction to it is very much along those lines—I’m not here to be entertained by this book. It’s not a feel-good love story or a tale of tragedy-to-triumph. It’s meant to be appreciated mainly for its historical value and technically skilled craftsmanship. For a number of reasons (the heavy topics, the highly literary style, the depth of the psychology), this is one to read with a group for the purpose of discussion.

There’s a lot covered in this novel, and the title says it best. Everything in Julian’s life is split, and he spends most of the story trying to make whole the things he sees as fractured. Despite the fact that there’s a sub-thread about the religion of his youth, it actually doesn’t factor in much beyond his musings until near the end. However, his broken trust in his faith and family of origin drive nearly every other relationship he has. It’s vital for people of faith to read this with the understanding of how religious institutions create and contribute to the oppression specifically of the LGBT community…

…Ultimately, I could probably talk for days about this book because it’s impossible to capture everything about such a dense read in a short review. My own personal grievances with the characters aside, I do think this is a phenomenal work, and I highly recommend it. It should be required reading if for no other reason than that we’ve already forgotten what life was like in those days.

Love Julian or hate him? Pick up a free copy and find out. Join the Goodreads M/M Romance Group and sign up for the “Don’t Buy My Love” giveaway starting August 25! Fifteen e-book copies of Two Natures are on offer in exchange for an honest review.