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.

June Links Roundup: Floored

When my parents sold the Lower East Side apartment we’d had since 1974, I was sad that I’d never again see our familiar kitchen linoleum. We had painted the whole room bright orange and egg-yolk yellow to match it. (Like I said, it was 1974.)

Thanks to Twitter last month, I discovered that this classic brickwork pattern was called Armstrong Flooring #5352, and that it was the best-selling design of the 20th century!

armstrong flooring 5252 yellow orange

The website Retro Renovation will give you the scoop on its creator, Hazel Dell Brown (1892-1982), whose influential interior design ads for Armstrong showed homemakers how to enliven spaces with bold color schemes. I imagine she would have been proud of our sunny-hued kitchen.

Something else from the 70s, which hasn’t aged as well: The men of folk-singing group Peter, Paul & Mary seemed the epitome of sensitive non-toxic masculinity, so I was shocked to read that Peter Yarrow had been convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl. #PuffToo? Apparently Yarrow was pardoned by then-President Jimmy Carter on his last day in office. Newsweek reported this past February that a lawsuit pursuant to the Child Victims Act was recently filed against Yarrow based on a 1969 incident:

Documents claim that Yarrow, now 82, met the victim a number of times before the incident took place in a Manhattan hotel room. He then “took an interest in her,” acting what in what the minor thought was “paternal way,” per to the filing. The lawsuit claims that the then-teenager ran away from her St. Paul, Minnesota home and met Yarrow at a Lower East Side hotel, where he allegedly raped her.

I suppose that leaves Billy Porter as one of my last remaining cis-male role models. The “Pose” star and gender-bending fashion icon came out as HIV+ last month, in an effort to end the stigma around the disease. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In the 14 years since [his 2007 diagnosis], the Emmy-winning star of “Pose” has told next to no one, fearing marginalization and retaliation in an industry that hasn’t always been kind to him. Instead, the 51-year-old, who has cultivated a fervent fan base in recent years on the basis of his talent and authenticity, says he’s been using Pray Tell, his HIV-positive character on the FX series, as his proxy. “I was able to say everything that I wanted to say through a surrogate,” he reveals, acknowledging that nobody involved with the show had any idea he was drawing from his own life.

In this interview on the Tamron Hall Show, Porter said something I found very relatable about the levels of trauma healing. Talking about his background as a child sexual abuse survivor, he observed that he had created a great life for himself but couldn’t inhabit it in an emotionally present way. The catharsis and honesty of playing Pray Tell, plus the meditative pause of COVID lockdown, made him take his recovery to another level.

Looking for more masculine inspiration? Read “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West” at Atlas Obscura.

Despite a seeming absence from the historical record, people who did not conform to traditional gender norms were a part of daily life in the Old West, according to Peter Boag, a historian at Washington State University and the author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. While researching a book about the gay history of Portland, Boag stumbled upon hundreds and hundreds of stories concerning people who dressed against their assigned gender…

It wasn’t that this time and place was more open or accepting of trans people, but that it was more diffuse and unruly, which may have enabled more people to live according to their true identities, Boag says. “My theory is that people who were transgender in the East could read these stories that gave a kind of validation to their lives,” he says. “They saw the West as a place where they could live and get jobs and carry on a life that they couldn’t have in the more congested East.” Consider Joseph Lobdell, born and assigned female in Albany, New York. When he surfaced in Meeker County, Minnesota, he became known as “The Slayer of Hundreds of Bears and Wild-Cats.”

Is modern life just too hard to understand? A “Sopranos” satire account called @MoltisantiThots tweets malaprop-filled takes on current events from the perspective of dimwitted Mafioso Christopher. In his writing newsletter Counter Craft, Lincoln Michel explains how bungled dialogue can be great for revealing character. Don’t miss Michel’s cosmic horror story “Dark Air” at Granta, cited as an example in the article.

Finally, the socialist magazine Current Affairs departed from its usual intelligent doom-forecasting to wax poetic on the divine qualities of felines, in Nick Slater’s “Let Us Praise and Honor Cats”. In a passage reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”, Slater writes:

While observing the daily life of a cat can give clues as to the unique ways she may be revered, it also has a more important function of clarifying why the cat should be revered. In other words, observation reveals the sacred vibes embodied by the cat. These are five in number, and they are:

  1. Cultivating a deep connection to one’s place—a cat is constantly strengthening his bonds to his home
  2. Balancing one’s needs with the needs of others—a cat will compromise, but only to a point
  3. Making wise discernments—a cat recalls the situations when she can safely relax, and when she must be vigilant
  4. Drinking in the world—a cat seeks to imbibe every aspect of his surroundings
  5. Giving and accepting love without craving—a cat shows love to others when she is moved to do so (and only then), and receives the love of others when it feels good to do so (and only then)

Slater’s advice on mindful cat-observation has deepened my connection to my time-share cat, Polly (our downstairs tenants’ mouser, whom I spoil rotten when they’re away). She will sit on my lap for exactly as long as I’m holding a bag of treats. I adore her.

But does she approve of the linoleum, I wonder?

February Links Roundup: Exorcising America

As February is Black History Month, let’s start our links roundup with a nod to 20th-century African-American historian Edgar Toppin (1928-2004), who persuaded President Ford to institute this official commemoration in 1976. Never heard of him? Well, that shows why we need to teach more Black history! I discovered his story at the progressive politics blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, in historian Erik Loomis’ series “Erik Visits an American Grave”:

Born in 1928 in Harlem, Toppin grew up in a literate but poor Black family, one that really struggled through the Great Depression, as so many did. His parents were Caribbean immigrants. Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Toppin loved books and would escape to the roof of the building where he lived to read in some peace. The young boy was quite bright and started at City College at the age of 16. Then Howard University came offering a scholarship and he finished his undergraduate career at that august institution of Black learning. He completed his Bachelor’s in 1949 and Master’s in 1950. He then went on for his Ph.D. in History at Northwestern, which he completed in 1955.

Toppin dedicated his career to teaching Black history in a nation that was pretty uninterested in that during these years. He started teaching at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, in 1964. Soon after, he starting using the power of television to teach Black history, creating a 30 episode program called Americans from Africa. His early publications were on Black politics in Ohio, but he never published a book on what evidently was his dissertation topic. Instead, his publications were centered around big public history books to reach the masses about Black history. They included A Mark Well Made: The Negro Contribution to American Culture, published in 1969, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, published in 1971, and The Black American in United States History, published in 1973.

Toppin’s greatest achievement though was the creation of Black History Month. This was an idea that went back at least to the great Black educator Carter Woodson. A Black History Week had been created, but it was largely ignored except in specific circles and what is a week anyway. In 1976, Toppin was president of Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). This is the premier Black history professional organization, then and now. As president, he lobbied the Ford administration to proclaim a national Black History Month. Ford, seeking Black votes, decided this was a good idea and that year, Ford announced it. It has of course today become central to our national study in history, both publicly and in the school system.

Dramatist Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for writing the play that became the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a Black gay youth coming of age in a community bedeviled by drugs and toxic masculinity. In this interview at The Creative Independent, he shares a vision of success that doesn’t depend on fame and money:

I say that you really have to find the way for that art to make you happy without it or you necessarily being celebrated.

If you need to be celebrated, that’s not the same thing as being an artist. Yes, artists like to be celebrated, but again, that’s a fleeting pleasure. That pleasure is not going to sustain you, because the moment you’re celebrated for one thing, then everybody’s always waiting on the next thing. If you’re expecting that work to be just as celebrated as the thing you did before, then you get into this habit of just trying to make the same thing over and over again. And again, you’re chasing being celebrated, and not the intimacy and impulse of what you created or what you’re trying to create and communicate, which is what you really want to do.

Personally I’ve always known that if I could have a house and do little plays in the backyard for me and around 15 people, I’m pretty sure I could be happy for the rest of my life. You have to find what that is for you. You have to find that patch of “I could be happy for the rest of my life doing X” for you… and then follow it.

The #MeToo scandals of the past few years have really brought home the realization that the gatekeepers of literary “success” are far from infallible. The latest drama that I encountered on Twitter this morning comes from Poetry Magazine’s questionable decision to publish convicted sex offender Kirk Nesset in their special issue dedicated to incarcerated poets. UK newspaper The Guardian summarizes:

The US’s prestigious Poetry magazine has doubled down on its decision to publish a poem by a convicted sex offender as part of a special edition dedicated to incarcerated poets, telling critics that “it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions”.

The magazine, which has been running since 1912 and is published by the Poetry Foundation, has just released its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families and prison workers. It includes a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former professor of English literature who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving and distributing child sexual abuse images in 2014. The investigation found Nesset in possession of more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse.

When a reader asked why the issue included Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds”, because “the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

In response, hundreds of writers have signed a petition asking the prestigious journal to remove Nesset’s work:

For their February 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine, “The Practice of Freedom,” editors have chosen to publish the work of convicted pedophile Kirk Nesset, a man who watched infant rape and the rape of 6,7,8-year-old girls for pleasure. When arrested, Nesset was in possession of over half a million images of child pornography and had circulated these images.

“This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said during Nesset’s Feb. 2016 sentencing. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” (allegehenycampus.com)

This petition calls for Poetry Magazine to remove Nesset’s work from their pages and their website. That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended. It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power… The reward and high-standing that comes with publishing in such an esteemed magazine should be withheld from someone who has relished the torture and degradation of innocent children, some only months old.

I’m still sorting out what I think about this issue. No one has a “right” to be published, and pulling a problematic work is not censorship or “cancel culture”. On the other hand, supporting prisoners means supporting all prisoners, not only those who are innocent, nonviolent, or serving unjustly long sentences. Some people are there because they did very bad things. This doesn’t change the fact that the American prison system is abusive, and that abuse thrives on cutting off prisoners’ ability to communicate with the outside world. On the other, other hand… poet Shaindel Beers’ comment on her petition signature is pretty persuasive:

Poetry Magazine needs to apologize for including Kirk Nesset in this issue. “Prison writing” issues of literary journals are meant to publish marginalized voices. Nesset is not a marginalized voice. Until he was arrested for child pornography, he was a professor with books published. He had something like A HALF MILLION files of child pornography on his computer. He specifically took his Pomeranian dog everywhere with him because it was a way to strike up conversations with children. This is not a “prison writing program” issue. He was a professor already. He’s not a marginalized voice. He’s a privileged person who suffered consequences for horrible crimes.

Philosopher Sara Ahmed’s post “Killjoy Commitments” on her Feminist Killjoys blog touches on this question of who deserves to be heard. Her New Year’s resolution: “I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.” Challenging inequality often means defending one’s existence (again). Yet the constant need to debate dehumanizing views is itself part of the inequality. This especially comes up in the rebranding of transphobia as “free speech”. Privileged people love to come up with intellectual-sounding theories about why sexual harassment, misgendering, and other verbal aggression are simply “ideas” that they should be allowed to discuss ad infinitum.

While I would like to restrict the amount of mental energy I give to our home-grown fascists, I also don’t want to be one of those white people who declares victory and goes home because Biden got elected. We have to analyze the appeal of this dangerous movement so we’re not blindsided again in the next election. Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime voice for LGBTQ equality in the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about “The Role of Toxic Religion in Dismantling Democracy”:

Make no mistake about it: it is a very short journey from “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” to “my country, love it or leave it” – with a direct connection to the rise of nationalism, sexism, white supremacism and the rest of the litany of isms that plague our nation and our world: the rise of the forces we struggle against daily as we live out our baptismal promise to persevere in resisting evil and the forces that have assembled to create the climate of violent extremism that fueled the assault on our Capitol, our Congress and our Democracy.

What we saw in sharp relief on our televisions and twitter feeds on January 6 — and continue to fight against in our body politic — is the effect of an anti-fact virus epidemic super-spreading in a population pre-programmed to believe fact-based science is an enemy of faith.

On a related note, this article by Reed Berkowitz at Medium is a longread that’s worth your time: “A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon”. He breaks down how conspiracy-mongering sites build immersive worlds and exploit the human brain’s craving to project patterns onto random data. Solving fake mysteries produces an addictive high:

There is no reality here. No actual solution in the real world. Instead, this is a breadcrumb trail AWAY from reality. Away from actual solutions and towards a dangerous psychological rush. It works very well because when you “figure it out yourself” you own it. You experience the thrill of discovery, the excitement of the rabbit hole, the acceptance of a community that loves and respects you. Because you were convinced to “connect the dots yourself” you can see the absolute logic of it. This is the conclusion you arrived at. More about this later.

Finally, I appreciated this sensitive article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin by psychiatric chaplain Jeremy D. Sher: “Chaplain, Can You Do an Exorcism?” Sher has the humility to work within the patients’ own worldviews, rather than forcing them to translate their demons into secular therapeutic constructs or debating their theology. Taking at face value the patient’s framework for her auditory hallucinations, the chaplain allows those voices to be heard, often leading to resolution of the patient’s fear and self-harm impulses. As a Jewish practitioner working with mostly Christian patients, Sher notes with some self-deprecating humor that one person’s faith is another’s delusion.

The question of the existence of the characters in the patient’s hallucinatory experience is not the topic of what the patient is saying. The patient is trying to tell us about their problems through an illustrative story within whose midst they have found themselves living. Spiritual assessment—assessment of the emotional and spiritual distress dynamics the patient is experiencing—is concerned with the plot of that story, not the question of whether the characters in that story exist…

The characters to which patients attribute their voices personify the patients’ inner struggles. The reality or unreality of those characters is as much beside the point for spiritual assessment as it would be to ask whether literary characters like Rodion Raskolnikov or Charles Darnay are real. But anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or A Tale of Two Cities knows those characters and could probably glean information about a patient’s mental state if a patient were to speak about those characters. There is a difference between fiction and fib.

Sher arrives at a personal demonology similar to the way that we Tarot practitioners conceive of The Devil card:

Based on a Jewish belief in the uncompromising monotheism of Job, of a God who “makes peace and creates harm” (Isaiah 45:7), I reject the notion of a devil power independently opposing God. God’s omnipotence, in my view, does not admit of competition. In Judaism, Satan works for God: Satan is a heavenly prosecutor who argues that humans should be punished for sin. There is no dualism or power opposing God.

Out of this belief, I came to the idea that a demon is an unpleasant angel, and an angel is a messenger of God. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, literally means “messenger.” A demon, then, is an angel with a message that we don’t want to hear. Twice, I’ve used this idea clinically with psychiatric inpatients. Each time, I assessed that my idea might help the patient, and I asked the patient if they’d like to hear something from my own faith tradition. With their assent, I told them that the demon conceals a holy message that God wants us to hear, but it appears demonic because there is hurt somewhere in God’s creation. So, if we listen very carefully to the demon’s expression of hurt, we might be able to identify the hurt and, in soothing it, dispel the demon. Patients were helped by this intervention.

 

“The Baptism” and “Touching” by The Poet Spiel

Today being the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, I thought I’d share a poem on the topic by The Poet Spiel, inspired by the Renaissance artwork below. The second poem returns to a topic that Spiel and I both ruminate upon frequently, the complex feelings we have toward our abusive mothers.

Suspended Motion Luca Giordano, The Baptism of Christ, 1684, oil on canvas, 91 ½ x 76 in. New Orleans Museum of Art Renowned painter of the late Baroque period Luca Giordano created mythological paintings, frescoes and religious imagery in a...

The Baptism

re: “The Baptism of Christ” ca. 1684, by Luca Giordano

One wonders what so predictably clings the abundant yardage to the Christ—
like his alabaster flesh was sensitized to draw it loosely
to what his benefactors might find objectionable—
except to expose the mansome strength of his right forearm,
the somewhat effeminate grace of his left hand,
the navel from which he was miraculously sprung and
a useless pinky toe which appears to have been cramped too long
in crummy shoes not meant for such a broad-torsoed man.
Hosted by fat-faced imps posturing as angels,
with a trickle poured from a scooped shell,
at this wetting of his flesh by the red-draped John;
his cloth also likely to have been commissioned
to please the elite prejudice of its day.
Supporting his weight on a conveniently-assigned tree stump—
as if he were resisting exhaustion
from such a foolishly daunting pour—
and he expects to pose statically for weeks on end,
though one suspects each man would high-tail it
if the brightly backlit dove hovering above them
suddenly let loose to become the baptizer.

****

Touching

A merciful dream
I could not before
have imagined—
touching her—
when she was dead,
when I was certain
she could not speak,
such pleasure of her skin,
her pure white hair
within my hands.

I cannot recall
who took me away
to sign documents
acknowledging
she was gone—
the exact time
and might there be
something
I wished to claim?

Yes—
a snip of her hair,
nothing so white,
and a few moments
alone with her…
still warm,
not resistant,
her mouth
not suggesting
how I might change
my life
to suit hers.