Hell Is the Absence of Closure

Having just finished my intensive immersion in “The Sopranos”, I don’t have an explanation for the enigmatic and (some would say) unsatisfying final cut-to-black scene of Tony in the diner. To quote Wednesday Addams, Are they dead? Does it matter? What I do notice is a psychological resemblance to the endings of two other shows that made a deep impression on me, “Mad Men” and “BoJack Horseman”. The central character of all three shows is a charming and destructively narcissistic man whose antisocial behavior at first seems clever and entertaining, then tragic, then dull and predictable.

I binged “BoJack” during 2020 quarantine (how fucked-up is it that we have to specify which year of COVID quarantine we’re in?) and something about its combination of bleakness and surreal frivolity spoke to the sudden bizarre shift in our lives. I was late to the “Mad Men” trend, but caught up in time to watch the last season in real time. Back in 2015 I thought Peggy Olson had finally shown me the kind of woman I was, which I’d never seen on TV before. Isaac Fellman’s essay “Peggy Olson Is a Gay Trans Man” tells you how that worked out.

As viewers, we crave a conventional narrative arc. Someone changes, or is shattered by the consequences of refusing to change. The endings of these three series frustrate that desire, because a wearying stasis is truer to life with a person trapped in his own narcissism.

Don Draper seems to have a breakdown and breakthough in the finale, shedding the status symbols of his ad-man life to wind up sobbing in an encounter group at Esalen. But the final minutes strongly suggest he’s going to spin his moment of enlightenment into a Coca-Cola commercial as soon as he catches a ride home to New York.

A “Hollywoo” treatment of “BoJack” would have ended one episode earlier, with him drowning in the swimming pool of his former luxury apartment like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard”. Instead, a subdued BoJack is directing amateur theater productions in jail while his friends’ lives move on without him. “Life’s a bitch, then you die, right?” he says to Diane, who replies, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch, then you keep living.”

In my opinion, that’s the punishment to which Tony Soprano is sentenced. He’s dead inside, whether or not his physical body is alive. Like the Flying Dutchman, he’s going to go on eating onion rings in that diner forever, after almost all his old friends and close family have died (many by his hand).

Sometimes the redemption arc is that other people get away from the one guy who’s been soaking up all the energy in the room because of his resistance to growth. The guy who thinks he’s the main character in everyone’s life, not just his own.

January Links Roundup: As the Crow Flies

Welcome to 2022, readers. Let’s start the year with the energy of this Oregon crow who befriended a class of fifth graders:

[Education assistant Naomi] Imel said the bird wasn’t aggressive at all and seemed to love the kids.

“It landed on some people’s heads,” she said.

And, she added, it spoke. The bird could say, “What’s up?” and “I’m fine” and “a lot of swear words.”

I’m doing my part–I’ve taught my 9-year-old to say “va fungool”, which he prefers to pronounce as “fats and goo!”

In other linguistic news from Harvard Magazine, my alma mater has articulated some useful principles for “de-naming” buildings and programs that honor slave-owners and other problematic characters:

 Harvard Law School has changed its shield, given its prior association with a founding benefactor who was a slaveholder. The faculty deans of Lowell House have relocated representations of Abbott Lawrence Lowell—a former Harvard president, whom they associated with racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views and actions—and prompted a wider discussion of the House’s name. (“Faculty dean” is itself a 2016 retitling of the position formerly known as “House master”—a decision accompanied by some controversy.) Critics of the Sackler family, associated through their pharmaceutical company with the lethal opioid epidemic, have called for renaming the eponymous museum (the donor, Arthur M. Sackler, pioneered pharmaceutical advertising, but died a decade before Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, the compound associated with the epidemic.)

One of our local writing groups hosted an online discussion this winter on Craft in the Real World, by bestselling novelist, essayist, and writing teacher Matthew Salesses. In true Harvard student fashion, I hadn’t actually read the book yet when I attended, but it’s on my long wishlist because of the compelling insights in his January 2021 LitHub essay “25 Essential Notes on Craft”. Salesses points out that aesthetics are never universal or apolitical. Rules for good writing are audience-dependent, and we don’t always need to cater to a white American individualist audience.

Craft is also about omission. What rules and archetypes standardize are models that are easily generalizable to accepted cultural preferences. What doesn’t fit the model is othered. What is our responsibility to the other?…

Craft is the history of which kind of stories have typically held power—and for whom—so it also is the history of which stories have typically been omitted. That we have certain expectations for what a story is or should include means we also have certain expectations for what a story isn’t or shouldn’t include. Any story relies on negative space, and a tradition relies on the negative space of history. The ability for a reader to fill in white space relies on that reader having seen what could be there. Some readers are asked to stay always, only, in the negative. To wield craft responsibly is to take responsibility for absence.

I never get tired of reminding people that the controversy over false memories was largely manufactured by defense experts for parents accused of child molestation. “Harvey Weinstein’s ‘False Memory’ Defense and its Shocking Origin Story,” a Longreads article from February 2020 by Anna Holtzman, is subtitled “How powerful sex offenders manipulated the field of psychology.”

Founded in 1992, [the False Memory Syndrome Foundation] was on its surface an “advocacy group” created by and for parents who’d been accused by their children of sexual abuse. The group’s supposed agenda was to provide support and fellowship to families that had been “destroyed” by accusations of incest. They launched a well-funded media campaign purporting the existence of an epidemic of “False Memory Syndrome” — not a scientifically researched condition, but rather a slogan concocted by accused parents to discredit the testimonies of their children…

The strategies by which FMSF infiltrated the psychology profession share much in common with Trump’s methods. The foundation used a carrot-and-stick technique to coerce the mental health field to fall in step with their agenda. The carrot was an impressive list of researchers, psychologists and academics that the accused parents of FMSF had recruited to be on their Scientific and Professional Advisory Board. The stick was a far-ranging assault of well-funded lawsuits aimed at discrediting, disbarring and suing therapists who dared to support incest survivors and validate their memories.

Psychologists and therapists were threatened with professional ruin if they sided with survivors and were tempted with professional reward if they aligned with the powerful forces behind the anti-survivor backlash…

Elizabeth Loftus, widely cited as the preeminent memory researcher in the “false memory” camp, has made a career of defending alleged child abusers in court for large sums of money. By her own admission, she has no experience working with trauma survivors in any clinical or research capacity.

Holtzman notes that the FMSF board included University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Orne, known for working with the CIA on mind-control experiments during the Cold War.

Orne and his MKUltra colleagues likely believed that by traumatizing their “research subjects,” they could ensure that their victims would not remember the abuse or would at least be too afraid to tell anyone. When survivors started speaking out, however, it became evident that their memories were resurfacing. So, what better way to silence sexual abuse victims than by launching a propaganda campaign that labels victims as crazy and discredits their memories? And what more natural frontmen to hide behind than the aggrieved parents of FMSF?

Holtzman’s article carefully and clearly debunks the main arguments used to discredit recovered memories. Whether or not you buy the CIA conspiracy theory, her logic is sound. And the Weinstein connection? One of his expert witnesses in his rape trial was, you guessed it, Elizabeth Loftus.

Safe Communities Pennsylvania has created this free 36-page guide to making your church congregation a safer environment for survivors of child sexual abuse. What I appreciate is that they treat it as a theological issue, not only a pastoral care issue. The guide suggests ways to rethink your preaching about forgiveness, suffering, and peace, among other concepts, so that survivors are not silenced or pressured to do emotional labor to redeem their abusers.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2021

How it started:

Jennifer Melfi - Wikipedia

How it’s going:

Silvio Dante Picture

Another year around the Block. I definitely don’t take that for granted. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life is short and unpredictable, entirely another thing to feel that urgency as one wakes up every day in a country under threat from fascism and disease. What am I waiting for?

High Spirits: I tried marijuana edibles for the first time in November. It was pleasant to feel my brain slow down for about 5 hours. No time to do it again till February, I imagine. I really need to readjust my work-life balance.

Salem’s Lot: Studying witchcraft this year has brought me great satisfaction, mind-body integration, and optimism. ICYMI, I blogged about it earlier this month. My first year of training will wrap up in March 2022. Time to start selecting my magickal name, which may coincide with applying for a new passport and driver’s license with a male gender marker. (My desire for gender affirmation conflicts with my basic laziness regarding paperwork and my Ron-Swanson-esque opinion that my gender is none of the government’s business anyway.)

Personal Soundtrack: Remember that week in January when everyone was singing sea shanties on TikTok? I got hooked on The Longest Johns, and particularly their song “Bones in the Ocean”, a poignant ode to survivor guilt that seemed extra meaningful as America’s COVID death toll reached 800,000. The Young Master independently discovered this song at summer camp and now we listen to shanties together on Spotify. His fourth-grade music teacher also introduced him to 2Cellos, an energetic pair of HOT guys who play pop tunes in a classical style. And I still can’t get enough of that German Karneval music.

Bookbag: Some of the extremely homosexual books I enjoyed this year were Aden Polydoros’ Jewish paranormal mystery The City Beautiful, Brandon Taylor’s literary short fiction collection Filthy Animals, and the poetry collections Mutiny by Phillip B. Williams and The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. I’d been meaning to read Glen David Gold’s historical novel about vaudeville magicians, Carter Beats the Devil, for almost 20 years, and it was all I hoped for and more. Julie Murphy’s queer YA romance Pumpkin gave me the courage to sign up for a transgender runway show next month. Pictures forthcoming!

The Writing Life: I finished a major revision of my novel Origin Story with guidance from the peerless editor/sensitivity reader Denne Michele Norris, co-host of Food 4 Thot Podcast and the new editor-in-chief of Electric Lit.

Once again, I took part in the 30 Poems in November fundraiser for the Center for New Americans, while binge-watching “The Sopranos” on HBO’s streaming service. The conjunction of those two pastimes generated The Waste-Management Land, a poetry chapbook manuscript in need of a good home.

My third full-length poetry collection, Made Man, comes out in February from Little Red Tree and is now available to pre-order. Cover art and interior illustrations by Tom W. Taylor a/k/a The Poet Spiel. This book explores female-to-male transition and gay masculine identity through the voices of unusual objects and fictional characters. Enjoy the opening poem, first published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal.

Self-Portrait as Pastry Box

Under my roof, cathedrals of piped
icing breathe out the sacred stale
sweetness of cream and cardboard
white as a right-hand man’s
final satin bed.
Under my roof we pay our respects.
The family is a thin shelter, soon wet.
If you don’t believe me, open
and see the red smash where tiered berries kissed
the jostled lid. No shifting
the ingredients. No loose knots in the string.
Under my roof I’ll thank you
not to take knives in vain.
Remember him who was lifted
from the river, from the box he was sealed in.
The snapped wafer laid on your tongue like a secret
recipe. Religion‘s root means to tie
string round the wrists, the trash
bag sinking, the harbor’s surface restored.
Under my roof the family’s bound
to gasp, glorying in the sugared name
I display to be sliced after the blown-out wish.
Take the cannoli, broken for you.

Why Witchcraft?

The time has come “to give a reason for the hope that is in me” (1 Peter 3:15).

Since March 2021, I’ve been a Year One student at the Temple of Witchcraft. Co-founded in 1998 by Christopher Penczak, Steve Kenson, and Adam Sartwell, TOW offers online and in-person courses in magical training and personal development. My current program is an independent study course conducted by email and audio recordings. It has five levels, with each course lasting a year and a day. TOW is an ecumenical tradition combining neopaganism, witchcraft, and magic. It is not specifically “Wiccan” but some practices and beliefs do overlap.

When I run into old acquaintances who ask what I’ve been doing lately, I generally say, “Oh, you know, revising my incest novel and watching my leg hair grow.” I’m coy about discussing my new spiritual path because, number one, I’ve barely learned enough to describe it accurately, and number two, it’s exhausting to anticipate people’s negative misconceptions about the Craft. I’m not worshiping the devil, and I’m not crazy (or not any more crazy than before). Usually I make a joke that I’m studying witchcraft by correspondence course but can’t turn Donald Trump into a toad because spell-work is Year Two.

A more substantial cause for my reticence is that I don’t wish to disparage other faiths or be a one-right-way evangelist, as I was during my evangelical days. But I can’t really explain why witchcraft feels right, without criticizing some features of Bible-based religion and its institutions.

It’s an analogous problem to explaining my transition. How can I describe what it feels like to be a man, without contrasting it to womanhood? And if I do that, won’t I inevitably fall into binary stereotypes, or make over-broad generalizations? One could, after all, wear neckties and be sexually assertive and not apologize for one’s career ambitions, and still identify as female. And one could remain in the church without believing in the Bible or the creeds (which I suspect is the majority of Episcopalians).

During the 2020 lockdown, I binge-watched “BoJack Horseman” on Netflix. Diane Nguyen, an introverted human journalist, and Mr. Peanutbutter, a humanoid Golden Retriever who’s very impulsive and outgoing, have a realistic bad marriage: neither of them is really at fault, they’re just fundamentally mismatched in their energy. They have to face that it’s not working in the Season 4 episode “What Time Is It Right Now”. After Mr. Peanutbutter’s latest grand gesture goes awry, Diane tearfully explains that their marriage is like an optical illusion. If you squint at it just right, it suddenly makes sense. But she’s so tired of squinting.

That’s exactly how I felt about trying to stay a woman, or a Christian. With a lot of effort, I could sorta make it work. I could shoehorn my personality and beliefs into something superficially female/Christian, and try to ignore the aspects of that identity that didn’t apply to me…and all the people constantly assuming those aspects did apply…and all the other people invoking our shared identity to justify transphobia and other oppressions. Or I could just…NOT.

While my church and denomination have been supportive of queer people, my deconversion and transition have mutually amplified each other, because once I discovered how it felt to “fit” in one area of my life, I couldn’t settle for “almost good enough” in other important areas.

So, why the Temple of Witchcraft? I was looking for formal training that would provide the liturgical richness and theological depth that I missed about Christianity. I’d bought some spell books in metaphysical shops, but it was hard to have faith in their recipes when I didn’t know the reasons behind them. Many folks who leave Bible-based religion for witchcraft are seeking something more female-led and goddess-centric. That wasn’t me. I asked my Tarot community about queer masculine teachers and Christopher Penczak’s name came up several times. Perhaps a year earlier, I’d had a funny experience in NYC’s Namaste Bookshop where I was browsing the shelves and said to myself, “What I really need is a book on gay witchcraft,” and seconds later, I spied this. (Did I buy it? Yes. Have I read it yet? No.)

Year One of our course, “The Inner Temple,” focuses on mental exercises, discovering and working with our embodied energy, and imaginative journeying. There are some simple rituals but it’s mainly about self-knowledge and psychic training. This proved to be exactly what I needed for my next stage of somatic trauma healing. The inward orientation made a refreshing contrast to liberal mainline churches’ emphasis on service projects at the expense of spiritual formation. Not that the social gospel isn’t important, but we took refuge in politically uncontroversial good deeds to avoid grappling with our religious doubts and disagreements.

Here are some things about Witchcraft that feel healthier for me:

Acceptance of Change

The nature of reality, according to the Hermetic Principles, is vibration and rhythm. Everything is evolving and in motion. We’re part of a larger pattern, but because it’s dynamic, there’s plenty of room for human agency to shift the pattern in a different direction. Moreover, there’s no presumption against change. It’s not sacrilegious to alter a tradition. You just want to do it thoughtfully, as Tim Gunn says about accessorizing your clothing. Understand the rationale for the old ways, so your changes will be effective and intentional.

By comparison, scriptural religion seemed to me like a structurally conservative force. The words of ancient writers are given a special authority over people alive here and now–no matter that those writers didn’t see some of us as fully human. Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton quipped that “tradition is the democracy of the dead,” but the dead can’t change their minds. Their votes are permanently cast for whatever values prevailed 2,000 years ago.

Variety of Commitment Levels

Traditional institutions conceptualize membership as an important boundary, and regard greater involvement as spiritually superior. Liberal religious leaders are not immune from contempt for the “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious”, assuming that their faith life must be shallow and selfish compared to belonging to a congregation. Some of this high-demand attitude must be driven by the economics of supporting a church building and staff salaries on volunteer contributions and labor. But it just has a cultish feel to it that reminds me of the loyalty tests and guilt-tripping in dysfunctional families.

The Temple of Witchcraft has a building and a few employees but its brick-and-mortar overhead is pretty low and its classes do cost money ($360 a year, really good value IMHO!). Beyond that, their philosophy of involvement is relaxed and consensual. You can complete each year of training without committing to the next year. You can use the techniques but decide not to pursue witchcraft as your spiritual path. There is a great deal of study and self-discipline required if you stick with the training, but no judgment if you decide to leave. Year Five graduates can qualify for ministry but it isn’t the required next step. In Year One, we’ve learned a little about certain entities that the Temple works with, but we are encouraged to continue or discover our own relationships with deities and spirits. Witchcraft is not exclusive of other faiths we may be practicing. (Those other faiths might not be so thrilled with witchcraft, however!)

Basically, they treat us like adults who know what’s best for ourselves, not like we’re trying to get away with being spiritual dilettantes and slackers.

Distributed Spiritual Powers

The exclusivity of Biblical monotheism had become a sticking point for me. I could see how it shared a common DNA with other oppressive forms of social organization: On the personal level, a family headed by a jealous, isolating parent. On the political level, the homogenization or erasure of competing worldviews by colonialism and white supremacy.

Traditional Christianity proposes a gulf between the human and the divine that can only be bridged by an exceptional event. This rang true to me when I was younger because I was cut off from my own life force and from any safe community. It made sense to conceptualize the world as islands of fragile holiness in a sea of danger. Nature seemed cruel or indifferent because I was an abused child, and children can’t survive in the wild without parental care. God the Father was my only hope.

As I’ve made a safer life for myself, and opened up to the experience of embodiment, divinity no longer seems remote and capricious. Witchcraft teaches me to attune to the presence of benevolent consciousnesses and accessible spiritual gifts in every aspect of the physical world. My individual self begins to feel more porous and continuous with the earth’s cycles of death and renewal–a great comfort during this pandemic.

When I thought there was one God, who considered himself infinitely better and wiser than me, I was afraid of him. I was told I was obligated to be in a relationship with him, but I didn’t see how there could be trust without consent. In my current paradigm, there are a multitude of spiritual beings, and I can choose which ones I work with. (Within the limits of avoiding cultural appropriation, and whether they want to work with me!) I don’t have to engage closely with any parent-like figures or anthropomorphic beings if I find them triggering. I can ask for guides who are on my level of the hierarchy, so to speak–equal companions rather than authority figures. There’s no expectation that gods will be part of my practice, at all.

Agency Over My Experience

Year One training starts us on the path of noticing and reshaping our emotional, physical, and psychic states. I’m much less afraid to sit with my emotions because I’m being given techniques to perceive them as tangible energy forms that I can investigate and tinker with.

In a lot of Christian discourse about retraining our minds and hearts, a power-struggle paradigm is central. We’re pressured to “surrender”. More intense experience must be better. By contrast, in the Temple lectures and materials, we’re reassured that we will have the experience that is highest and best for us right now. No judgment, no comparison.

When I wish for something, I’m no longer sitting around wondering if it’s “God’s will”–a concept that seems unknowable to me, given how many contradictory statements people have made in the name of Jesus. What seems to work for me, lately, is a combination of faith that it will happen, and acceptance of not knowing how it will happen. I set my intentions “for the good of all, harming none,” take whatever practical steps are available now, and wait. Right now I’m working on manifesting cats in my home office. Watch this space for updates.

Flash Fiction by Spiel: “Blue Boy”

Multi-genre creator The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the visual artist Tom W. Taylor, has now licensed his colorful, energetic prints of flora and fauna for sale on Spoonflower fabrics and home goods. Spiel’s artwork will also grace the cover and frontispieces of my next poetry collection from Little Red Tree, forthcoming in early 2022.

Meanwhile, he shares with us this short story about the plight of survival sex workers. ACAB!

Blue Boy

Bigelow spits his gold-plated Masonic cufflinks; polishes them against the knee of his Brooks Brothers charcoal herringbone dress trousers. He circles this dingy block a fifth time as he frets his opening line:

“One-day intergalactic space travel will be available to everyone.”

Yeah, that seems pretty harmless. Even if she’s a cop, she won’t be able to hang him with that.

Night hits Honeybunch’s regular hangout wall like a splitting maul — sucks the warmth out of it.

Leaves her skin the same color as the cold deep shadow hovering over Northern and Central. She’s been warned and busted three times since she’s hit this crummy town.

Her kid is stashed four blocks away on the floor of her flat-tired booted truck, trying to disappear beneath a blue plastic tarp — chewing his fingers for nurture. Freezing.

She’s been doing quickie b.j.’s at four bucks a shot just to buy him a now-and-then Hershey bar and a bag of corn chips so she doesn’t have to grab them and run like hell.

Bigelow’s rig is long and shiny. Big bucks, she figures. Maybe he’ll be good for a tenbucker.

She’d throw in a buttfuck for fifteen. He wantsa go bareback? Christ! That oughtta be a fifty but on a night like this, she’d settle for a twenty.

His tires growl against the curb. Automatic passenger window whispers as it vanishes. She sticks her head through the hole. It’s like the Vegas hotel room that slimy Mayor flew her to when she was fifteen — but no ceiling mirrors. She wonders if this creep might slit her throat. Worries if she might stink too much. A fifty-dollar bill lies right beneath her nose. A limp pecker peeks out from beneath his padded steering wheel. His palms are wet white.

“N-n-nice night, Miss, uhh, I g-g-guess I don’t know your name. Uhh, one day, d-d-d-did you know intergalactic space t-t-t-travel will one day be available to everyone…even such as yourself?”

Honeybunch practically inhales the fifty. Damn near swoons over the instant thought of a bucket of hot greasy breast meat from KFC. “Shove yer fuckin space rockets, White Ass!” she sneers as red lights flash through Bigelow’s steamed rear window. His flabby neck looks like a fat ripe tomato as he quickly presses his clammy hands upwards — like he’s scared his plush white leather roof will collapse and suffocate him.

Her kid is turning blue on the rotten truck floor — barely able to comfort his little head against the gawddam froze-up brake pedal.

Honeybunch spends another night in the convenience of a cell huddled with her kind.

Any kind of bread will be just fine.

November Links Roundup: Inequality Isn’t Magic

Happy (?) November, readers. My mood continues to be “living my best life in the end times”, hence the question mark. This post’s title references an article I will shortly mention, but also a realization that sometimes gives me hope and other times makes me feel more helpless than ever. I grew up thinking that society’s big problems persisted because they were too complex to solve. Not to go all tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory on you, but I’ve learned enough history to see that our broken systems are broken because someone deliberately designed them that way.

The 1619 Project from the NY Times made certain people mad because it argued that racism shaped American health care, urban design, and financial markets in deep and lasting ways that hurt everyone today. For example, this recent post by Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money informed me that urban planner Robert Moses deliberately made New York’s bridges too low for buses to pass under them, so that poorer, mostly nonwhite New Yorkers couldn’t easily access Jones Beach. It’s so blatant that it makes my teeth hurt.

My best friend from Harvard and I were talking about the University of Austin, a new college being launched by “anti-woke pundit provocateurs” (to quote Slate) who believe that social justice orthodoxy has shut down free debate. That is, actually, the kind of statement I would have made as a college student. My friend and I now agree that the real chilling effect on campus comes from economic precariousness and exploitation. Few people have the freedom to speak their mind when burdened with six-figure debt. Whether Left or Right ideologies prevail in a particular institution matters less than the fact that modern university endowments are built on the underpaid labor of grad students and adjunct professors with no health benefits.

On the website of speculative fiction publisher Tor.com, Courtney Floyd’s article “Beyond Dark Academia: The Real Horror in Magic School Is Systemic Inequality” dares us to imagine alternatives to our fantasies of privilege. Comparing popular fictional schools from The Magicians (SyFy) and Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, among others, to the disabilities and financial hardship faced by many real-world graduates, Floyd writes:

It’s wild that even magic school stories about the brokenness and corruption of the system assume that graduates will successfully navigate that system and become fully-actualized professionals.

When you come of age in a broken system, the identity you crafted in school is rarely the one you get to occupy in professional life. And that’s assuming you’re admitted in the first place, able to stay enrolled, and have or obtain the support and resources you need to earn your degree—feats which the academy makes nearly impossible unless you are already familiar with the inner workings of the institution (via your parents or network), are independently wealthy, and are able-bodied enough to throw caution (or work-life balance) to the wind. Because, in reality? Schools, magic or otherwise, are almost always places of privilege that cater largely to the privileged, all while selling the myth that they are for everyone…

By presenting institutions of magical education as places where the darkness sometimes creeps in, instead of places designed to perpetuate systemic inequality, these stories imply that the institution, as well as the kids it supposedly trains, is ultimately alright.

We never explore what happens when your admission letter extends a welcome that’s not followed through by faculty, staff, or your fellow students because you don’t fit into the narrow ideal of what a student should be. Or what happens when the people who you’re trusting to guide you through this process are toxic or abusive or have earned tenure and simply don’t care anymore. We don’t learn what happens when, degree in hand, you discover that there are three full-time, benefited jobs in your field in the whole world, and hundreds or thousands of applicants for each of them.

In another detour into under-explored folklore, I enjoyed this feature that Jewish Currents published near Halloween: “Aaahh!!! Jewish Monsters,” written by Eli Lichtschein with illustrations by Joey Ramona. You’ve probably heard about the golem, but can you identify a shayd–a demon that takes human form? Look for its tell-tale chicken feet! (Could this be why my mother made us take off our shoes in the house?)

The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin riffs on a J.K. Rowling title in their article “Fantastic Faiths and What We Can Learn From Them”. This transcript of Gianna Cacciatore’s Harvard Religion Beat podcast interview with Prof. Charles Stang (no relation to Ivan Stang at the Church of the SubGenius, I hope) discusses how fictional and real-world religions influence each other. Stang observes that films like The Matrix and Blade Runner hark back to the Gnostic doctrine that our consensus reality is an illusion created by an evil demigod. Only now, the demigod is us, and if our films are any indication, we’ve lost the hope of a transcendent reality beyond the veil. Meanwhile, “on the United Kingdom’s 2001 census, 390,000 people identified their religion as ‘Jediism’.” As in, Star Wars.

I continue to be blown away by novelist and short story writer Brandon Taylor’s Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather. His cultural essays are cheeky, erudite, melancholy, and satirical, sometimes all in the same paragraph. You think you’re settling down for a light laugh about bourgeois New Yorkers and suddenly you’re crying, or deciding to read Zola. And then you laugh again. In his October post “trauma is a ghost, who knew,” he reveals why his mind works that way. Adapting the screenplay for his acclaimed novel Real Life made him re-live memories of childhood sexual abuse and its denial by his family.

I don’t speak to my family. I am alone in the world. I have some friends. But. I am alone in the world. And that’s okay. But sometimes, I wonder. Am I being too hard. Too enamored of my grudges. Then I remember that I still have nightmares. I remember that years ago, they carved something from me. Such that whatever love or peace or happiness or prosperity or tiny sliver of the world I might come into for myself is forever alloyed with not just a sense of loss, but a sense of cataclysmic alteration.

I’m never going to be okay. I’m never going to be over it. I’m never going to have processed my trauma. It hangs over me like a part of the starred firmament. That shit is the fucking moon. The permanent, irrevocable nature of what was done to me. That’s why it’s always Alabama when I dream.

And then, being the great critic that he is, he segues into analyzing his favorite movies where people do what his family could not: have long, messy, slowly unfolding conversations about the hard stuff.

I think I love movies like that because it feels like a reality I’d want to live in. Where you had to just keep talking until you both died.

I wonder what my dad would say if we could get into one of those conversations. About everything. The last time I tried, he kept saying, “I didn’t know.” And I thought, how could you not. When I told you. But I couldn’t say that because he was professing not to know. And I thought, here is someone who desperately wants to stop this conversation. Who wants to live in a reality in which he did not know about what was happening to me. And that is fine. He can live in that reality. But he cannot live in that reality and have me live in it too.

Words to live by, friend.

October Links Roundup: Oh Susannah

It’s Socktober!

As part of my ongoing wardrobe reorganization, I was planning to wear a different pair every day, but it’s been shorts-and-sandals weather for the past week and a half. Guess I’ll have to try again in…Toe-vember.

I have decommissioned six bags of ladies’ formal attire this month, some with the tags still on. “Dries van Noten! Tahari! Escada!” I lamented to my husband, for whom these words have less meaning than Pokémon names.

One vintage pleasure that never gets old, for me, is the Richard Tucker Opera Gala that was televised on PBS in 1994. A couple of years after seeing “The Phantom of the Opera” musical (a classic “do I want to marry him or be him” figure for gay trans boys), I had become a full-blown opera nerd. This gala was notable for Samuel Ramey’s mesmerizing performance as the charismatic, sinister Reverend Olin Blitch from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”. Watch it on YouTube. In this retelling of the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders, set in the American South, a young woman is falsely denounced by the Reverend as a sinner when she refuses his advances. Later, I had the great privilege of seeing Ramey perform this role at Lincoln Center with the fantastic Renee Fleming as Susannah. I was reminded of it when I read Floyd’s obituary last month. The great American opera composer died on Sept. 30 at age 95.

In a more modern variation on this theme, feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed analyzes “How the Culture of the University Covers Up Abuse” in an article for LitHub, excerpted from her new book Complaint! (Duke University Press, 2021). She examines “collegiality”, the loyalty of faculty to one another, as an obstacle and an indicator of what type of person “belongs”. In a choice between loyalty to two faculty members, one of whom accuses the other of abuse or harassment, “collegiality” often weighs in favor of the person who is most similar to you in terms of race, gender, power, or background. This dynamic continually forces younger and more diverse colleagues out of the system.

The institutional fatalism I have been describing…which converts a description (this is what institutions are like) into an instruction (accept this), is also often familial. In other words, you are supposed to accept harassment and bullying because that is what families are like…

When we talk about protecting the institution, we are also talking about protecting some colleagues more than others, or even some colleagues against others. We are talking about how protecting one person can be the same thing as protecting the whole institution. There is a history to who becomes that person. There is a history to who does not become that.

While I’m indulging in 1990s nostalgia, remember when the libertarian/classical liberal wing of the conservative movement was about more than refusing to wear a COVID mask in Wendy’s? That’s when I was a susbcriber to Reason Magazine, which still publishes some good articles about protecting real civil liberties, like this piece about the oppressiveness of the cash bail system. In “Cashed Out”, Leah Libresco Sargeant describes why the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund transitioned from paying poor defendants’ bail to lobbying for the abolition of bail altogether.

Bail funds had looked like a way of outsmarting the system: Courts could keep setting bail, but a bail fund operated as a kind of nullification of the prosecutor’s recommendation and the judge’s decision. The revolving money seemed to many bail fund donors, including me, like a way of turning tragedy into farce. But the BCBF team had come to believe they’d essentially been conscripted into the carceral system they wanted to dismantle…

Bail funds let politicians get the softer outcome they wanted without having to put their names to an attempt to change the law. The BCBF’s solution was to force lawmakers to confront the costs of the current system…

When the overwhelming majority of defendants whose bail is paid by a bail fund—and who thus have none of their own money at stake—show up at trial, it undermines the premise that cash bail was the least-restrictive option available. Those defendants didn’t need to have money on the line in order to come back.

At the Ploughshares blog, Calvin Gimpelevich writes about navigating Jewish and working-class ideas of masculinity during his transition in “Among Men”. Judaism historically placed more value on scholarly achievement than on brawn as the chief virtue of manhood. This can be good news for us mascs who can’t hammer a nail straight. But this archetype also has a fraught history of anti-Semitic polemics linking Jews to queerness and degeneracy. Gimpelevich discusses how such anxieties were internalized by European Jews who wondered whether their people had become too physically weak to fight oppression. Later, male Jewish-American intellectuals like Norman Mailer displaced these insecurities into misogyny and imperialism. Gimpelevich doesn’t take sides in this battle of masculinities, but carefully explores the pros and cons of both. (I had a special fellow-feeling for the author when he disclosed that he has face-blindness and can’t drive. We are a type.)

In this 9-minute video, Rabbi Abby Chava Stein gives an engaging talk about Talmudic support for transgender identities. I recently read her memoir, Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman (Seal Press). It’s an inside look at life in one of the strictest, most separatist American Jewish communities. One can’t deny that she knows her theology backwards and forwards!

An unexpected side effect of my transition is that I spend almost as much time thinking about breasts as my husband does. Other people’s breasts (more interesting than I thought); my breasts (dysphoric but pleasurable); whether it helps to call breasts something else (chesticles?); whether the problem resides in the body or in others’ reactions to it. In Allie Spikes’ essay “Minimizer” in Gulf Coast (Fall 2021), about her breast-reduction surgery, she delves into the contradictory messages she received about her body as a young Mormon woman: look fertile enough to attract a husband, but not so voluptuous that you lead men into temptation. Big breasts create forced visibility, and visibility is unsafe–or at any rate, burdensome and confusing–in a society that feels entitled to project moral values onto your body.

I’m still thinking about the book talk I attended online for Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness. Harrison has been posting proud pictures of themself on Twitter lately–beard, belly, and breasts. I am encouraged by the way that they embody queerness as its own style, not an imitation of white cis gender norms. In their talk, they cautioned against surgery that came from a place of internalized bias against one’s own body type, arguing that mainstream gender roles were specifically defined in opposition to the Black “other”. It’s an unsettling thought, because I also know how I can deceive myself with theory, arguing myself out of my feelings. But I really think I should read this book.

Evangelism as Microaggression

So it’s a radiant early-autumn day and I’m walking downtown to get some fish tacos, listening to a Food4Thot podcast on my headphones, when I happen to smile at this woman’s little dog and she stops me to say that God nudged her to speak to me. Apparently I haven’t yet mastered the genial indifference to strangers that is the hallmark of cis men, so I unplug my earbuds and politely listen to her rhapsodize about her church where God heals the sick and raises the dead. This may well have been the same woman from this 2018 blog post; autistic face-blindness means you get to be annoyed by the same person twice.

I manage to be happy for her happiness until she starts urging me to search online for testimonies of people’s visions of the hell that awaits unbelievers. I interrupt her, firmly but with a smile, to say that I don’t believe that only Christians go to heaven, or that God torments anyone for eternity. But the visions! She can admit no disagreement. “And I’m transgender and happy about it, so thanks but goodbye,” I retort, starting to walk away. She hasn’t brought up the LGBTQ issue, but this is generally a good way to shatter the façade of love-bullshit. “I’ve known people who’ve been delivered from that, from homosexuality,” she calls after me, and I call over my shoulder, “That’s bigoted,” and plug back into Spotify just in time to hear Denne Michele say, “Trans is beautiful!”

Why did this bother me enough to write about it? I have no anxiety about the eternal destiny of my gay-ass soul…but I once did. And it upsets me that Christian supremacy is so normal that strangers have the chutzpah to use these scare tactics. This lady’s emotional register went from ecstasy to threat in under two minutes. And she might really have been motivated by concern for me, rather than simple arrogance. I was once close friends with an evangelical woman who’d been raised in a missionary denomination. As brutal as the doctrine sounds to outsiders, Calvinist predestination appealed to her because it relieved her of the obsessive anxiety to force everyone she met toward salvation. Leaders fill their flock with fear that they spread to others like a virus.

Microaggressions are little mundane irritations that hurt because they hint at larger oppressive dynamics underneath. They’re behaviors that are still acceptable in “polite society”, that remind you that your inclusion is conditional. They can be so stupid that you feel you should be strong enough to laugh them off, but somehow you’re not, and that adds to the shame.

Hellfire evangelism feels like a microaggression because this person is trying to traumatize me. I’m just walking down the street laughing at pre-recorded dick jokes from August (because, like Denne, I am always late catching up with media) when somebody decides to frighten me into an existential crisis. For the evangelist, a successful interaction would result in me imagining myself in horrible pain, which I can only alleviate by becoming exactly like her. Sounds pretty abusive when you lay it out clearly.

Though I had the privilege to laugh this off, I was also traumatized vicariously on behalf of the many vulnerable queer people who might harm themselves, or be harmed by others, as a result of this theology. Underneath the concern for my eternal bliss is the demand to worship a god who sees everyone outside a certain demographic as subhuman, unworthy of empathy.

As of today, I am not delivered from transsexualism; few heavenly pleasures can compete with the superior pockets in men’s trousers. I am left with a more complicated theological question, however. How should I interpret these reported visions of the hell for unbelievers? What were they really seeing? And how do I exercise discernment in interpreting my own spiritual intuitions, dreams, and guided journeys in Witchcraft class? Our head witch in charge, Christopher Penczak, teaches that we avoid delusions by consistently practicing introspection and psychic self-cleansing (which includes therapy). We learn techniques to become aware of the different levels of our psyche and clear them of harmful thoughts and attachments. I’ve never been in a church that paid such attention to sanity-maintaining tactics or offered a specific framework for developing spiritual discernment.

As for the visions of heaven and hell, Christopher has also said that when we’re in a visioning state, we will perceive ineffable spiritual realities via the images and concepts that work best for our minds, which is different for everyone. Maybe those Christians did see something terrifying in a dimension adjacent to this one. I can credit the genuineness of their experiences without drawing identical doctrinal conclusions.

Or maybe Christopher Moltisanti is right, and hell is an eternal party in an Irish pub. Sláinte!

September Links Roundup: Learning from Demons

Happy (almost) autumn–the witching season!

Self-described “normie Satanist” blogger Stephen Bradford Long followed a similar trajectory as mine, from anguished gay Christian to student of occultism and Tarot. In a provocative post from July, “The Satanic Practice of Learning from Demons”, he explains why he bothers to engage with authors like Jordan Peterson, notwithstanding the latter’s bigoted views. Long doesn’t expect anyone to traumatize themselves by immersing in hostile literature. However, to the extent that we can do it with equanimity, reading problematic authors can be useful for both humility and intellectual exploration. We can come to realize that harmful people are also sometimes right, and conversely, that great influencers and heroes have flaws. Consider how Christianity has been both a route out of despair and a source of new abuse for many of us.

Willingness to learn from demons is a prerequisite for intellectual integrity*, because there is no earnest learning without the practice of good faith. Good faith is the assumption that our interlocuter, no matter how disagreeable we might find them, means what they say and might have some piece of knowledge that we don’t. It is to entertain the terrifying notion that we might be wrong, and they might be right.

However, this does not negate the fact that ideas have consequences, and the ideas of an author might also be utterly destructive and evil when manifested. Engaging with that darkness is valuable, too. Looking into the blackness of an evil ideology is a practice that fortifies you into a wiser human or terrifies and defeats you. I have experienced both and become better for it.

Above all, my Satanism blasphemes the infantile purity that rejects the pursuit of knowledge. There is no safety in reading, and no security in learning. Learning has frequently broken me – it has cost me my faith, my community, and sometimes my sleep and mental health. But it has also liberated me and made me a stronger, better person. The pursuit of safety and avoiding all toxins at all costs means starving the intellect and living with a stultified and brittle mind.

Around the same time, Black feminist author adrienne maree brown wrote this incisive essay, “unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19”. She observes that marginalized activists too often turn on each other, in the name of “accountability”. American culture right now feels collectively suicidal, and we are acting it out on social media because it’s the only place we feel a sense of agency. “our nation has a tendency towards its own destruction, a doubt of its right to exist, that is rooted in our foundation.” That foundation, of course, is genocide of Black and Native peoples.

we are afraid of being hurt, afraid because we have been hurt, afraid because we have caused hurt, afraid because we live in a world that wants to hurt us whether we have hurt others or not, just based on who we are, on any otherness from some long-ago determined norm. supremacy is our ongoing pandemic. it partners with every other sickness to tear us from life, or from lives worth living.

so we stay put and scream into the void, moving our rage across the internet like a tornado that, without discernment, sucks up all in its path for destruction.

our emotions and need for control are heightened during this pandemic – we are stuck in our houses or endangering ourselves to go out and work, terrified and angry at the loss of our plans and normalcy, terrified and angry at living under the oppressive rule of an administration that does not love us and that is racist and ignorant and violent. grieving our unnecessary dead, many of whom are dying alone, unheld by us. we are full of justified rage. and we want to release that rage.

She asks us to stop fighting over who is “innocent” (another supremacist concept) and start looking for solutions that liberate everyone. “i want us to see individual acts of harm as symptoms of systemic harm, and to do what we can to dismantle the systems and get as many of us free as possible.”

Gates of Light Tarot is a Jewish mystical Tarot site that I just discovered. The post “The Blinding of Isaac and the Eight of Swords” links a card and a Bible story that both arouse big feelings in me. The binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is the story of Abraham’s test of faith, in which God (supposedly??) commands him to sacrifice his son. But this midrash/Tarot reading, connecting it to the blindfolded woman on the card, suggests that Isaac developed traumatic blindness because of his father’s betrayal of his trust:

The Eight of Swords is the Sefira of Hod, Humility, in Yetzirah. It’s a coded teaching that our personal and family history, our culture and traditions can bind and blind us from seeing truth. And that rather than identify with these ideas, if we are to be free, we must see these ideas for the limitations they are and let go of them.

In Genesis, Isaac blindly repeats the mistakes of his father, from trying to pass off Rebekah as his sister to save his life and by fomenting discord in his family by actively preferring one son over the other. We all repeat the mistakes of our parents in one way or another. And we all inherit their ideas, preconceptions and prejudices. But if we are ever to experience liberating insight, it must begin with liberating ourselves from the short-sightedness of familial and cultural prejudice and by clearly seeing and healing family trauma.

Last month, Image Journal hosted an exciting conversation between two autistic authors, Katherine May (The Electricity of Every Living Thing) and Daniel Bowman Jr. (On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith, and the Gifts of Neurodiversity). The recording is available to watch on Vimeo. Some insights from their talk that I found particularly relatable: Neurodiversity extends to narrative structure, as well. We don’t have to write the disability memoir that mainstream culture expects, with a hero’s journey and a triumph over obstacles. Multi-genre collage may better reflect how our minds work. Moreover, the stereotype of the unemotional autistic person is harmful and inaccurate. Some of us simply don’t express emotion in expected ways, while others are more intensely emotional and have to withdraw periodically for that very reason. For the latter group, the arts can be a great refuge.

Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, reminds us to “Make Bad Art Too” in this playful blog post from 2020, which I found via Northampton poet Naila Moreira’s e-newsletter.

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

It’s my abusive mother’s birthday this month. Am I going to send her a card? No! Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar column explains why not:

There is no instruction manual for this kind of sorrow, Estranged Daughter. There is no map. There is only the story you lived through, the story you survived, the story you wrote for yourself, the story you will keep writing. It’s the story of the elegant, heartbreaking, brave way you’ve done the limbo for nearly forty years and the story of the way you will continue to do it, even though it hurts. You didn’t get what most people get and what all of us deserve—a mother who regards you as her richest treasure—and yet here you are at forty. Free. Happy. Comfortable in your skin. Strong. Neither sending a birthday card to your mom or not sending a birthday card to your mom will obliterate that, Daughter.

So, trust your gut. Don’t think about how your mother will react. Think about what you want to do. You can write to her and say what you want to say without opening the envelope of her reply, if you’d like. You can write to her and not send the card. You can silently narrate birthday greetings to her in your mind and breathe them into the air. You can decide to not think of her at all.

Whatever you do, remember that the most powerful thing you learned in the enormous effort it took to shut that door between you and your mother is that there is no door. The door is a metaphor we use so we can pretend there’s something solid to crouch behind. But there isn’t. We are the solid. The door, dear Daughter, is you and me and all the people reading this who relate to these words. It’s built by our strength and our courage; our wisdom and resolve; our suffering and our triumph. The people who harmed us can only come inside if and when we allow them to.

In Witchcraft class this month, we are working on cutting energetic ties to situations and people who are harmful to us. I’ve done a lot of trauma processing in the last decade since I went no-contact with her. But it’s humbling to realize that on a somatic level, some part of me still believes that one or both of us will die without the psychic umbilical cord connecting us.

Favourite Moro Quote? - Princess Mononoke - Fanpop

Even though the cord looks like this. [Image credit: Studio Ghibli, “Princess Mononoke”]

On that note, I highly recommend Tara Westover’s memoir Educated (Random House, 2018), which I just finished reading. Among other things, it’s a stunning depiction of the push-pull between fighting for your own survival and longing to stay connected to your family. The story of her rural Mormon family’s anti-government paranoia and rejection of modern medicine gives insight into the Covid anti-vaxx movement today. Her website links to other useful resources for survivors.

August Links Roundup: Ship It

Better get this post up before the month is over! Here’s an eclectic list of good reads around the web.

At the Iowa Review, Amanda Peery-Wolf’s “What Can I Ship” is a witty found-poem based on the Union Pacific Online Customer Handbook from 2007. The reader may be alternately numbed and delighted by the sheer volume and random diversity of items that human beings have invented and sold. Strategically placed linebreaks lead one to imagine additional strange mash-ups of existing products:

toasters walking sticks with rubber tips video games mattresses hd

screens jeans green bicycles for boys rubber hands for halloween minidresses

for when she’s starting to come into her own pocket pill containers

horse blankets rabbit biscuits jingly balls for cats eyebrow brushes

keyboard covers car accessories menorahs plastic bags pen caps worry

dolls folding fans molding clay ac units fuel charges apply to all shipments

balled-up tissues tootsie rolls rolling papers live rabbits beach umbrellas…

At the Ploughshares blog, Pepper Stetler‘s essay “The World Will Be Tlön” compares the DSM-5 to the aliens’ rewriting of human history in Jorge Luis Borges’ surreal fable “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”. The human psyche craves order and categorization to such an extent that we confer authority on “expert” psychological diagnoses and overlook their contested political history. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Stetler can’t ignore the labels that will help her family navigate the medical and educational systems to get the resources they need. However, she remains skeptical enough to value aspects of her daughter’s mental life that the DSM would pathologize. “Intellectual disability is still described in terms of deficits and a failure to meet certain standards, rather than language that might suggest that the environment, the conditions of our modern world, might be what is deficient, which would open up the possibility for social change.”

At MEL, a men’s magazine, Chingy Nea opines that “‘The Sopranos’ Belongs to the Gays Now”. Gay popular culture loves references and memes from the Mafia drama because it’s a show about masculinity as high camp. “Even if they don’t realize it themselves, every man and woman on The Sopranos is performing gender at such a high level that the show smacks of the stuff. And because many queer people live outside the confines of traditional gender roles, we’re more used to recognizing that all of us are performing gender, whether we know it or not.”

I got halfway through Season 4 when “The Sopranos” originally aired, quitting because I didn’t want to see Adriana get whacked. If we go on lockdown from COVID again this winter, or even if we don’t, I suspect I’ll be bingeing the show from the beginning. I have HBO Max now–I am fancy. No more bootleg videotapes from my parents’ friend who had premium cable.

My new passion as of last year is making collage art. My handmade greeting cards are everything that my writing isn’t–upbeat, popular, and easy to understand! Via Poetry Daily, I discovered the online journal Ctrl+V, which is dedicated to creative writing that incorporates visual collage elements. I particularly liked this flower clock poem from Nora Claire Miller, “To Understand a Tendency Consider Its Conditions”.

This cheerful non-manifesto by poet Maggie Smith, part of an interview in the “Stopping By With…” series from the Poetry Society of America, lightened my anxiety:

What do you see as the role of art in public life at this moment in time?

A question I’ve heard asked a lot over the past year (but also in most hard years—which is most years, period) is “What is the role of the poet in these times?” I suspect the expected answer is something about expressing collective grief or outrage, or speaking truth to power, or providing comfort. But my answer is usually, “To do your work.” Any world worth living in and fighting for is a world full of art.

So we do our work, whatever it looks or sounds like, without expecting it to fix or solve anything, without expecting it to heal someone. We just do our work, and perhaps it will mean something to someone else, the way we find art that means something to us.

LitHub published the winners of this year’s Insider Prize, a writing contest sponsored by the journal American Short Fiction for incarcerated writers in Texas. Eva Shelton’s story “Bottles of Grief”, about solidarity and loneliness in a bereavement support group, and Keith Sanders’ essay “The Myth of Me”, about being a rebellious teenage atheist, are both worth a read.

Classicist and poet A.E. Stallings shares a bit of forgotten queer history in “Warrior Eros” at The American Scholar. Reviewing James Romm’s The Sacred Band: Three Hundred Theban Lovers Fighting to Save Greek Freedom, she describes the real-life inspiration for the thought experiment in Plato’s Symposium about “an army of lovers and their loves” who would be bonded by affection to fight to the death.

In Athens and Sparta, romantic, erotic, and sexual relationships between men were largely countenanced and conventional: a couple was composed of an erastes (the lover), the older partner, and the eromenos (the beloved), a youth on the cusp of manhood; “lovers and their loves.” The pro-Spartan Athenian historian Xenophon seems to have been atypical in his disapproval of male-male sexual relationships; in ancient Greece it was arguably unwavering heterosexuality that was “queer.”

But if, as Romm points out, in Athens and Sparta “male erôs was ‘complicated,’” in Thebes and Boeotia it was sanctioned by the state. Male couples could take an oath at the grave of Iolaus, Hercules’s own beloved, to live together as syzygentes—yoke mates—a term that elsewhere indicates a lifelong marital bond. It is etymologically related to “conjugal.” (The modern Greek word for “spouse” is still syzygos.) After running a junta of Spartans out of Thebes in 379 BCE, the Thebans turned their attention to defense. What Thebes needed to keep Sparta’s hoplites (heavily armed infantry) at bay was an elite squad of its own; thus was born the Sacred Band of 300, its couples having sworn the “sacred” oath at Iolaus’s tomb.

When will we get a movie about this??