Binary Virtue and Transmasculine Confusion

Being transmasculine and a feminist is a confusing experience sometimes. I’m deliberately not using a blame-word like “erasure” because part of the confusion is not knowing how much space to occupy. Add my history of being rescued from abusive women by empathetic men, and the alignments get even more complicated.

What I’d like, first and foremost, is to decouple the fight against patriarchy from assertions about the relative virtuousness of “women” and “men”. When the discourse goes there, as it so often does, I get that feeling where the words stick in my throat and my skin doesn’t fit right.

My mom-of-choice streams lesbian movies for her friend group, which unsurprisingly includes many in her demographic of white butches over 70, as well as a few harder-to-categorize younger queers like me. I’ve seen some brilliant indie and foreign films in this series that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise. While folks are getting settled in, she likes to precede the main feature with a woman-centric short film or music video. One of those was Israeli protest singer Yael Deckelbaum‘s “War Is Not a Woman’s Game”.

I was stirred by the passionate music and message, yet faintly uncomfortable with the premise that anything (other than their lesser political power) made women inherently more peaceful than men. I wondered whether I should accept that this piece of media was simply not for me, and observe it with silent empathy, as an emotional release rather than a proposition I needed to agree or disagree with. But I did feel I belonged in the movement Deckelbaum was creating, and would have had no doubts about the invitation, had it not been for the gendered framing. That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw some men in the song circle in the video.

In the chat, four or five of the women watching the video with me became heated about the men’s presence. They said they were sick of men centering themselves in everything, and that there shouldn’t have been a man in the front row of the singing group. Nobody contradicted them. Now what could I do? To speak up as a trans man would have confirmed the very objection they were raising. So I’m taking up space on my own fucking blog instead.

The other day I heard an even better song on the car radio. The catchy melody, the clever rhymes, and the body-positive message gave me a physical boost of good energy. I’m talking about “Victoria’s Secret” by Jax. It’s an anthem to her younger self, and young girls today, to let them in on the real secret: stop starving yourself to comply with impossible “beauty” standards. “She’s an old man who lives in Ohio/Making money off of girls like me/Cashing in on body issues,” Jax sings. “I know Victoria’s secret/She was made up by a dude.”

Technically this is true–according to Wikipedia, Les Wexner of Columbus, OH (now chairman emeritus) bought Victoria’s Secret in 1982 and turned it into the sexpot brand we love to hate. The same entry, however, mentions a number of female CEOs and high-ranking executives throughout VS history.

More to the point, I’ve always seen it as a cop-out to blame the male gaze for women’s cruelty to each other, which is a primary mechanism by which these fatphobic and butch-phobic standards are enforced. In my adolescence, my failure to perform thin and sexually alluring femininity merely made me invisible to young men, but repulsive to my mother and my female doctor. Girls scrutinize each other’s bodies and style choices with forensic attention to detail, while boys are like, “Duh, is she wearing a bra?” Fashion industry editors and tastemakers are predominantly women, as are the consumers of these images.

As a contest judge and avid reader, I see no difference between male and other-gendered authors in using fatness as shorthand for telling us that a character is unlikeable or stupid. And after two years of weekly attendance at lesbian movie night, I can count on one hand the number of women-made films I’ve seen that don’t center thin, young, conventionally attractive femmes. (I especially recommend “Late Bloomers” and “Cloudburst”.)

At what point will we stop judging people’s virtue by their gender identity, rather than their allegiance or resistance to patriarchy?

September Links Roundup: Cthulhu at Costco

You just never know what you’ll find at Adam’s favorite superstore. I suppose Lovecraft’s Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young needs those jumbo-sized cans of tomato sauce to feed all the kids.

A bit late with the link-o-rama this month because I’ve begun Year Two of the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School. This year I’ll be learning spell-crafting, altar-building, how not to kill my houseplants, and possibly an answer to the question “Is it cheating on your marriage to have sex with a god?”

Talented essayist Grace LeClair, a fellow regular in the Tarot writing workshops I’ve attended since 2015, pushed the boundaries of 1960s propriety when she challenged Barnard College’s outdated rules against cohabitation and its curfews for female students. The Columbia Spectator interviewed her recently about her undergraduate activism, which made her a target of the tabloids in New York City. The all-women’s college folded on its feminist principles because of pushback from wealthy pearl-clutching alumnae. Grace, then known as Linda, courageously stuck to her message that her campaign was not about sexual license but empowerment and equality–the very reasons she’d chosen a women’s college in the first place.

A less sympathetic tale of activism comes to us from–where else?–Texas. NBC News and ProPublica reported last month on a contentious school board meeting in the North Texas town of Granbury:

For months, the woman in the clip had been demanding that the Granbury Independent School District ban from its libraries dozens of books that contained descriptions of sex or LGBTQ themes — books that she believed could be damaging to the hearts and minds of students. Unsatisfied after a district committee that she served on voted to remove only a handful of titles, the woman filed a police report in May accusing school employees of providing pornography to children, triggering a criminal investigation by Hood County.

Now, in the video that Weston found online, she was telling the school board that a local Christian pastor, rather than librarians, should decide which books should be allowed on public school shelves. “He would never steer you wrong,” she said.

The clip ended with the woman striding away from the lectern, and the audience showering her with applause.

Weston, 28, said his heart was racing as he watched and rewatched the video — and not only because he opposes censorship. He’d instantly recognized the speaker.

It was his mother, Monica Brown.

The same woman, he said, who’d removed pages from science books when he was a child to keep him and his siblings from seeing illustrations of male and female anatomy. The woman who’d always warned that reading the wrong books or watching the wrong movies could open the door to sinful temptation. And the one, he said, who’d effectively cut him off from his family four years ago after he came out as gay.

I love erasure poetry because it flips censorship on its head. Words and lines are blocked out, not so much to silence the source text, but to make it speak a hidden message, or to talk back to its oppressive assumptions. When he was in prison, my pen pal “Conway” used to make powerful erasures out of disciplinary memos. Poet Jennifer K. Sweeney has a series of such “effacements” posted in the online journal Gasher, using collage and erasure to break open the constraints of a 1950s etiquette manual.

An insightful New York Times video series by James Robinson about living with disability profiled Paul Kram, who has prosopagnosia (face-blindness). As someone with a less severe version of this condition, I found his experience relatable. At one point the video shows faces turned upside-down, making them harder to recognize. This disorganization of data is similar to how facial information enters a face-blind person’s brain. Along those lines, I had a dream the other night where someone got my pronouns wrong, and I replied, “It’s okay, I can’t recognize people I already know, so I can see how certain things just don’t stick in your mind, either!”

Slippery identities and slanted stories are the theme of Kij Johnson’s “Five Sphinxes and 56 Answers” in the latest issue of the experimental lit mag DIAGRAM. The award-winning fantasy writer braids a Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age story with variations on the Oedipus myth, exploring the intergenerational misunderstandings and enforced silences of women throughout the ages.

You have come to accept that she is who she is because of her own confusing and critical mother, and the cycle goes back through forever it seems: women unhinging their pelvises to bear other women and then getting started on the hard work of dying, back and back and back, mothers and daughters and mothers of monsters.
Mixed messages, riddles you can’t solve. You stand at the entrance to a great city, the world. Your mother waits astride the rock that bars your way. The first riddle ends in your adulthood; it is unlikely she will be alive for you in your three-legged stage, though perhaps she is counting on you being there for hers.
The second riddle is existential, and there is no answer. Night and Day. Living ’til night or waking up in the morning is always a matter of faith. In the end, both women die.
Your mother is also Hera, angry and vengeful and punishing the wrong people.
You mother is also what you have tried hard not to grow up to be. Have you succeeded? Could she have done better? Have you?
There are other versions of this story, as well.

Also in DIAGRAM, Tyler Raso’s “Personality Index” cleverly reads as both a numerical questionnaire and, if you ignore the numbered part, a poem composed of the phrases in the left column. I do love me some psych-test satire.

Sanah Ahsan’s column in The Guardian, “I’m a psychologist–and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health,” unpacks why I often find psych checklists reductionist and insulting.

If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.

In efforts to destigmatise mental distress, “mental illness” is framed as an “illness like any other” – rooted in supposedly flawed brain chemistry. In reality, recent research concluded that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain. Ironically, suggesting we have a broken brain for life increases stigma and disempowerment. What’s most devastating about this myth is that the problem and the solution are positioned in the person, distracting us from the environments that cause our distress.

Individual therapy is brilliant for lots of people, and antidepressants can help some people cope. But I worry that a purely medicalised, individualised understanding of mental health puts plasters over big gaping wounds, without addressing the source of violence. They encourage us to adapt to systems, thereby protecting the status quo.

Da’Shaun L. Harrison’s book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness (North Atlantic Books, 2021), which I’m currently reading, makes a similar point with respect to body-positivity. When standards of beauty and health are deliberately constructed to exclude your type of body and subjugate your type of person, you can’t self-esteem your way out of the material disadvantages this creates. More thoughts to come once I’ve finished this radical, brilliant book.

Over at The Philosopher, Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s piece “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” critiques the simplistic deployment of “standpoint epistemology” to turn the minority member of an elite group into a spokesperson for even less privileged people in his demographic. For instance, the Black professor probably knows more about racial discrimination than his white colleagues, but the factors he has in common with them, such as social class and education, may outweigh the differences. But these spaces tend to operate as though handing the Black professor the microphone is the beginning and end of incorporating truly diverse perspectives. Meanwhile, they don’t notice the other ways their group is homogeneous and unrepresentative.

From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

This “being-in-the-room” privilege, relative to other members of his demographic, doesn’t discount all the ways that this Black professor may also be disrespected within the room. Standpoint epistemology–deferring to marginalized people as experts on their own experience–can be a corrective “morally consequential practice…of giving attention and respect.” It’s just not the only thing we need to do. Otherwise you get the all-too-familiar political echo chamber of liberal academia, where arguments over symbolic deference take up way more energy than constructive material change. We need to build coalitions across our different kinds of vulnerability, rather than compete for attention by comparing our traumas, he concludes.

I honestly think there’d be a lot more support for affirmative action, reparations, etc. if we took these suggestions and moved away from an attention-scarcity economy.

Finally, enjoy some groundbreaking African photography in this 2020 article from The Guardian, profiling Ekow Eshun’s Africa State of Mind. Adam and I enjoyed seeing queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s striking black-and-white self-portraits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this past February.

July Links Roundup: Live Poets Society

Readers know I have mixed feelings about the “always already” trans narrative, but it does say something that my favorite movies as a teenager were “Some Like It Hot” (musicians fleeing the Mafia have to cross-dress to hide in a women’s dance troupe) and “Dead Poets Society” (boarding-school boys read poetry to each other in a cave).

Last month, my husband, who’d never seen the latter film, suggested that we stream it for date night. It was just as beautiful as I remembered. Against our current backdrop of right-wing attacks on school curricula and libraries, the message of literature versus repression hit even closer to home than in 1989. I could also see clearly what I had not understood when I was the same age as the characters–the movie’s only-barely-subtextual queerness. I yearned for this same tenderness between men, which included homoeroticism but went beyond it.

Fortunately, now there’s Google. I went looking for “dead poets society gay” and found, among other things, Adelynn Anderson’s “‘Chased by Walt Whitman’: Or, Why Did Neil Perry Kill Himself?”, a 2020 article at Medium. She makes a persuasive case that “wanting to be an actor” was 1980s-speak for the main character’s real confession to his repressive parents, which he would ultimately rather die than say aloud. The maverick professor played by Robin Williams frequently references Walt Whitman, that Daddy of gay poets, as their role model for an authentic life. Anderson explains why Neil’s struggle has to be coded rather than overt: “Part of the issue is because movies created at this time were still feeling the repercussions of the Hays Code, a code of ‘moral conduct’ for films introduced in the 1930s. It outlawed, among other things, the display or mention of non-heterosexual characters.”

Poet Diana Goetsch is very much alive and getting well-deserved acclaim for her new memoir, This Body I Wore (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2022), reviewed last month at Autostraddle by Melissa Faliveno. I had the pleasure of hearing her read from it at a Charis Books & More online event. Goetsch had been teaching English and publishing well-regarded books under her former name, while expressing her hidden self in New York City’s cross-dressing social clubs in the 1980s and 90s. She came out as trans at age 50. Faliveno’s essay reflects on queer temporality and late-in-life discoveries:

“There is simply no knowing a thing if it is self-secret,” Goetsch writes, “perhaps because that thing refuses to know itself in your presence. It is like a valley, spread out before you, hiding in plain sight.”

…Queer people are constantly resisting straight time. We often live in direct opposition to it, refusing or unable to buy in, forging our own, often nonlinear, paths. We don’t get married, or we don’t have kids, or we don’t buy houses — those markers that, to the straight world, make us more adult. We exist, instead, in queer time.

Even if we do want some of those things — like marriage (assuming queer folks can still do that in the future), a house, a family — it can take a lot longer to get there, not least because we often spend more time figuring out who we are, interrogating those structures and exploring what we want. But even in queer spaces, there’s pressure to do things a certain way. To come out, for instance, as soon as possible. The problem is that, for a lot of people, it’s not possible. For some people, it’s not safe. For others, we don’t have the models that reflect us, the language that fits. We define and redefine ourselves as we go…

…In queer spaces, we spend so much time urging people to come out. And don’t get me wrong; I believe that coming out, extracting ourselves from the shame that people and institutions place upon us and living our lives as authentically as possible is important — not least in this era of “Don’t say gay” bills and constant threats to queer and trans lives. Speaking our truth can in fact save us. But that pressure can also undermine an individual’s sense of time and space and safety, the acknowledgement that some things take a while.

At the Ploughshares blog, Jessica Hines’ essay “Queer Desire and the Myth of Iphis” looks at how medieval writers questioned social roles by retelling an ancient Greek story of a gender-switching princess. Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower, for instance, commended the myth as a role model for courageous devotion. The socially transformative power of queerness, which made the church and the state afraid, can also make lovers brave.

Iphis’ story is one of magical transformation. Assigned female at birth, Iphis is raised as a boy by their mother, Telethusa, due to their father’s decision that all female children will be killed in infancy. All goes well until Iphis becomes engaged to a young woman, Ianthe. Ianthe and Iphis long for each other and deeply desire marriage. Iphis and Telethusa keep delaying the marriage, however, because they fear that it will expose Iphis’s secret. Iphis laments loving Ianthe, seeing it as, in Valerie Traub’s terms, amor impossibilis—an impossible love. Iphis lacks a phallus and thinks this indicates that they do not have the physical means to satisfy their desire (this detail gets me every time—if only Iphis had had access to sex positive sex ed!). And so, Iphis worries that even as they will get what they most desire through marriage—Ianthe as a wife—Iphis will not be able to “complete” that love and will ultimately risk exposure and humiliation. In the end, the goddess Isis intervenes, and Iphis transforms into a man (perhaps biologically, perhaps socially—Ovid’s original isn’t entirely clear). Iphis and Ianthe live happily ever after…

…Gower’s story of Iphis occurs as part of a much larger work, a poem called the Confessio Amantis, in which a failing lover, Amans, gets advice from his priest, the allegorical figure Genius. Genius tells the story of Iphis in the section of the poem about the sin of sloth. Amans confesses that slothfulness, particularly in the form of pusillamité, cowardice, has frustrated his efforts as a lover. Genius tells Iphis’s story as a counternarrative, a story of how great courage can win love. Iphis and Ianthe, with their willingness to throw themselves into Some Thing—some desire, some practice, some love—that was all unknown to them, are an example of the kind of courage that can help someone reach great love.

I don’t want to oversell what’s happening here. Gower isn’t out marching in the medieval equivalent of a Pride parade. But there is something shockingly moving in the fact that Gower brands this expression of desire as a cure for cowardice. It frames the willingness to exist in the epistemological uncertainty constructed by unknown desire as a type of courage. It suggests that the willingness to move into the unknown spaces of desire and bodily union is powerful and transformative. That there is something to be desired and worthy of imitation—something that cowardly lovers should learn from—in the dwelling in obscurity, in the unknown spaces, of sex and desire.

I wish I didn’t have to repeat myself that throwing trans people under the bus will not save democracy, but mainstream media is enamored with this idea that Democrats would have the bandwidth for real social change if only they didn’t have to worry about the pronoun police. At the social justice news outlet Truthout, journalist Kelly Hayes talked with ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio last month about why attacks on trans rights are an integral part of the fascist strategy to control everyone’s sexuality, healthcare, and family formation. Scapegoating misunderstood minorities is also a convenient pressure-release valve for the trauma of life under authoritarianism. Hayes observes:

Cultivating a disregard for suffering is going to be fundamental to any capitalist system, as we move forward in this era of drastic inequity and catastrophe. But for the Republicans, the goal is not simply to cultivate an indifference to extreme and routine acts of violence against targeted groups, but also, to satisfy an enthusiasm for that violence…

…As we saw under the Trump administration, a government can fail to deliver on nearly all of its promises, but still enjoy the celebration of a fascist movement if the state offers up violence that its followers experience as redemptive.

The GOP does not plan on doing anything to make anyone’s life better, and it’s not really even pretending to offer any plans that would do that, but it is promising white people, cis men, and cis women who feel threatened by trans women, a form of social retribution.

Strangio concurs, and connects “gender-critical” feminism to racism:

[W]hite women in particular have been central to mechanisms of white supremacy in the sort of structural political sense, even when cast as sort of outside of typical power structures. Sort of there’s this long history of white womanhood being situated as that which needs protecting, which builds some of the most violent mechanisms of state power, and we can sort of trace that through the entire structural formation of the United States as a nation state, where you have protecting white women and this being used in the service of mass violence against Indigenous communities, against enslaved communities, and to perpetuate lynchings, to fuel mass incarceration, to propagate wars globally…

…And in the context of anti-trans bills, this is very much part of the continuation of that legacy wherein you have in particular a lot of cis white girls and their white parents, in particular their white mothers, sort of evoking this idea that their daughters are being threatened by this monstrous other that needs to be controlled and removed and the state needs to step in as protector.

Later in the interview, Strangio takes aim at the argument that gender identity is a frivolous “culture war” issue distracting us from real material concerns:

I have truly never understood the culture war discourse as anything other than some sort of media narrative to minimize and sort of invisibilize structural power. Everything and nothing are culture wars all at once. We are constantly having fights over yet sort of who can live and die. That is the nature of politics. And that is inextricable from all of the things that we might understand to be culture and cultural norms.

And so every conversation about gun control or foreign policy or taxation or housing, I mean, those are culture wars. It’s a conversation about who is centered in our understanding of our ideological and cultural norms in this country.

Honestly it reminds me of the irritating progressive Christian platitude that “what matters is not what you believe, but what you do”–as if there could be any action without a belief behind it.

Speaking of Christianity, I was struck by the originality and boldness of these Easter weekend reflections from philosopher Adam Kotsko’s blog, which obviously I am catching up on several months after the fact. In his post for Good Friday, “The Cross: That’s How They Get You”, Kotsko remembers praying the rosary during the end of his Catholic phase and deciding that it no longer felt wholesome and redemptive to meditate on Christ’s martyrdom:

People talk about the power of “making martyrs,” but martyrs are very easily recruited by the powers that be, to shore up their own legitimacy. And within the first generation of Christians, even as they were living under Roman persecution, the Christians themselves were helping out with that process. You can find the outlines of an anti-imperial account of the cross in the synoptics, especially Mark, but even in Mark you already see the beginning of the effort to deflect culpability from the Romans to the Jews.

I’d propose that the real effect of the cross imagery in history has been more akin to the imagery of the fetus in pro-life circles (which obviously overlap heavily with Christian circles) — a fantasy of victimhood that incites fantasies of revenge. The cross has incited more pogroms than revolutions, it seems, and when it has inspired revolutions, Christians have been among its greatest opponents. Among more well-meaning Christians, the cross seems to underwrite a kind of magical thinking about redemptive suffering, as though being beaten up by the police and arrested will somehow in itself produce social change. It turns the performance of state terror into a performance for the state, which will somehow shame it into doing the right thing. The very sign of a social order that is irredeemable — the fact that it publicly tortures people to death in order to terrorize populations into submission — becomes a sure method for helping the powers and principalities to find their best selves.

I’d argue this is why Christian writers and churches are so much more enamored of abuser-redemption stories than supporting survivors’ resistance. Kotsko’s post on Holy Saturday calls out the guilt-trip underneath the message of free salvation:

So God becomes man in Jesus Christ, God submits to the humiliation of birth as a helpless infant, God experiences the ignorance and insecurity and fear that make up a human life, God contrives to antagonize the legal authorities until he can count on being publicly tortured to death to fulfill the demand of — God. God dies on the cross to satisfy God’s demand for punishment, to calm God’s wrath. God dies on the cross to save us from God — hallelujah!

…And after the delirious, incredulous joy of this bizarre moment, the next section reveals the truth: God’s payment of our debt of sin was not true forgiveness, not a clearing of the books, but a consolidation loan. He died for you, can’t you live for him? God is willing to offer you for forgiveness, and all he asks in return is your very life, your very soul. God saves us from God by binding us ever more closely to God, indebting us more profoundly to the one who sacrificed himself for us.

That’s love, right? That’s what love looks like: sacrificing yourself, so that you can emotionally blackmail the loved one. That’s what love looks like: giving up everything, so that the beloved can never leave. That’s what love looks like: playing the carrot of forgiveness off against the stick of the old regime, the supposed “Old Testament God” whose threat and demand remains the only background against which this heroic self-sacrifice can even remotely make sense. That’s love — love for the debtor who will always only be debtor, love for the debtor who now carries not just a debt of sin but the burden of having somehow caused the death of God. That’s love.

If that’s the only way God knows how to love, then I don’t want God’s love. If that’s what the death of God on the cross is meant to accomplish, then maybe we’d be better off if God stayed dead.

There is a minority tradition in the West — running from Hegel and Nietzsche up to Altizer and Žižek (and maybe, I’d dare to suggest, by way of Bonhoeffer) — that claims that that is precisely how we should interpret the cross. God dies, permanently and irrevocably, leaving us alone to figure out for ourselves how we want to live our life together.

The Poet Spiel: “Returnee” Series

Time for some more hard-hitting poems about war and American manhood from my friend The Poet Spiel, a/k/a the artist Tom W. Taylor. Watch this space for news of our collaboration on my next poetry book!

returnee: commandments 6 and 3

on his knees,
in reverse
of the sacred thou shalt commandments,
first taken to his heart as an innocent,
he killed for you
on lofty commands
drilled deep
in the immediacy
of fear and steel
and fire.

he’d come back home
and robbed you
of what he thought
he’d fought for;
and when he found himself confused,
he cleansed your colon
with his 9 mm glock.

so he fell to his knees —
like when he was a child —
to humbly wash your feet
of what he’d done;
but recognized he’d finalized
his shames
when he exclaimed
his first lord’s name
in vain.
___________________________
returnee: last words

he is so glad to be free
of those god-forsaken sandstorms.

glad to sink heels into real dirt
he’d worked
before he was called.

but he cannot know these bodies,
occupying the same address
where they all watch tv,

where he’s been pissing away big rents
from over there
for all these years.

these aliens have the same names as those
who have been shipping monthly selfies
and xmas goodies to him:
jen and tiffy, billy lou and little john.

though they have
somewhat familiar faces,
he wants nothing to do
with these strangers.

the square truth is:
he just doesn’t have to kiss
nobody’s ass
no more

he’s already said his last words
every ten breaths of his life
for the past one thousand days.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Witch Kitsch

We went to Salem.

This Massachusetts coastal town has made a peculiar tourist industry out of the fact that it executed 19 people (and two dogs) on charges of witchcraft in 1692. Four others died in prison or under interrogation.

All respect to Giles Corey, the crotchety octogenarian who let himself be pressed to death rather than admit the court’s authority to try him.

In one of history’s ironic twists, Salem is now an epicenter of modern witchcraft culture and fashion. You can hardly walk a block downtown without coming across a shop selling pentacle jewelry, mini cauldrons, psychic readings, crystals, candles, and dolls in pointy hats. Not to mention, this tribute to Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha in “Bewitched”.

Visiting Salem as an actual, serious, practicing witch was an adventure in cognitive dissonance and complex emotions–not to mention a temptation to spend way too much money on Goth swag, like this Baphomet pillow I bought to make myself feel better about not getting top surgery.

Aiming for equal parts entertainment and scares, Salem’s witch-tourist museums go in for waxwork tableaux and sensationalist re-enactments of what they call the “witchcraft hysteria”. The presentations include some helpful historical context about the plagues and warfare that stressed the Puritan settlement to the point of irrational scapegoating. Then as now, people were desperate to blame someone for the disconnect between their suffering and the divine blessings they were promised. But of course it would be too controversial to draw those connections for the paying customers, so the popular image of the Puritans remains exotic and remote from the world of their descendants. The official story on the placards is that “of course” witchcraft isn’t real–even as the alternative spirituality business is booming, right outside the door.

Should I, then, mourn Salem’s executed witches as my spiritual ancestors? It’s hard to say, because there’s no good evidence that they considered themselves witches (tortured confessions don’t count). Even if some of them did practice folk magic in secret–practices like hexing or fertility charms having always coexisted alongside official Christianity–the 17th-century witches’ values and cosmology were likely more similar to the Puritans’ than to my Temple of Witchcraft class’s Buddhist-inflected, queer-friendly worldview. Magic is a technology that doesn’t necessarily create common ground among its practitioners. The concentrated collective prayers of right-wing Christians could be seen as a hex designed to wipe out queer people. I began practicing magic in earnest during the Trump years because I perceived a spiritual warfare component to the GOP’s attacks on human rights and Mother Nature. (In my opinion, it’s not really Jesus they are worshiping, but I digress.)

The gender politics of the “hysteria” also left me with unanswered questions. It’s actually remarkable that pre-teen girls’ accusations against prominent men, such as minister George Burroughs, were taken seriously by the church and court system. A number of witches were convicted on the “spectral evidence” of girls’ nightmares and sensations of being pinched by invisible hands. To me this sounded like abuse flashbacks, which can take the form of body memories. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Burroughs was the real perpetrator; don’t haunt me, George.) In dismissing the entire trials as delusional, we may play into the patriarchal script that anything that can’t be confirmed by outside observers is not credible.

The irreverence of the waxwork history tours troubled me at first, but then I recognized it as a form of “whistling past the graveyard”. At Halloween, we dress up as what we fear, to make our mortal vulnerability manageable through play. We put our heads in the stocks as a joke, to dispel the unease of imagining our own neighbors turning on us.

Salem was also the birthplace of the great fiction writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose work you can read for free at AmericanLiterature.com. I wrote my college thesis on original sin in his stories “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “The Birthmark”, two Gothic fantasies about prideful scientists whose drive for “perfection” destroys the women they love most (to the extent that a narcissist can love!). A descendant of witch-trials judge John Hathorne, Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to distance himself from that history. I understand him better after visiting the Witch City. Throughout his work, he struggles with inherited sin. On the one hand, he wants to hope that descendants can break a cursed pattern, even if the cost to themselves is high. On the other hand, he’s enough of a Puritan to remind progress-intoxicated Americans that human nature is permanently flawed. We trade religion for science, we scoff at the past, but the same impulses that drove the witch trials remain in our hearts.

I don’t think Hawthorne would be a fan of the “Scarlet Letter” coffee mugs in the House of Seven Gables Gift Shop, but this fan art by Wendy Snow-Lang shows why Melville thought Nat was such a snack:

Transition goals, am I right?

More Than Their Worst Act

Tomorrow will be my 49th birthday. Closer to 50 than I like to think about. Midlife musings: Do I have enough hair to be worth dyeing, or should I emulate Quentin Crisp and accentuate a youthful face with gray hair? Are 71 button-down shirts really enough? Are some life paths foreclosed to me because I transitioned late, or because compromise is just the human condition? Everyone is embedded in relationships and situations that their younger self set in motion. Coming out, at any age, doesn’t reset the clock.

When I’m in this frame of mind, the opening lines of Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” keep coming back to me:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

And then I inevitably think of disgraced male feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer, on whose website I discovered that poem, over a decade ago. Close to my age and already on his fourth marriage, Hugo wrote poignantly (and perhaps sincerely, at the time) about turning away from sex and love addiction, toward commitment and acceptance of limitations. The feminism I’d encountered in school in the 1980s-90s had all been gender-binary and bio-essentialist. His writing was my first indication that there was space in the movement for someone as male-identified as myself. And then it all went to shit in 2013: revelations of affairs with female students and sex workers, his own confession of a failed murder-suicide attempt with his ex-girlfriend in 1998, harassment of Black feminists online, and drug and alcohol relapses.

Yes, Hugo is as cancelled as cancelled gets. I don’t fault anyone for refusing to engage with his work, or the work of any prominent figure whose legacy includes both abusive behavior and work that’s transformed people’s lives: John Howard Yoder, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Jean Vanier, etc., etc. In a society where competition for attention is fierce, many feel that morally compromised figures don’t deserve one more minute of it. Damnatio memoriae was reportedly a punishment in the ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman world, where a disgraced person’s name and work were erased from official accounts. It seems like poetic justice today, when we imagine the unknown scholars and artists whose contributions were forestalled by a predatory authority figure in their field.

But…

I also think of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean’s maxim that “we are more than the worst act we commit”.

Nobody has to forgive these wrongdoers. Nobody is obligated to offer them redemption or look for the silver lining. Let me be clear about that. But if any of us, despite ourselves, still take heart from something they said, or continue to be inspired by one small flower blooming in the big shitpile–I’d like to think that we’re giving them an opportunity to be more than their worst act, too.

This feeling doesn’t make us better or worse than someone who has to slam the book closed forever. It isn’t a “Go thou and do likewise”. Just a way to make peace with being grateful to a really fucked-up person. I’m never going back to that room, but I’m here because I was once there.