(Trigger/content warning: religious upbringing, childhood trauma)
The past week has provided the opportunity for a lot of unexpected self-reflection. While a guest at Feministe, I am navigating more exposure, and more feedback, than I’ve ever experienced. Most aspects of this have been wonderful and fun. Predictably, some parts have been harder to swallow. I had a long list of things I wanted to write about during my tenure here, but decided instead to take some time to mull over things, consider my role– as a mother, a woman, a girlfriend, a feminist, a writer!– and try to understand where I fit in, and what I have to offer (beyond clever dating tales.) Looking at my history as an example, I wonder if I might offer a point of view perhaps not often represented here, and hopefully pose some questions about education, discourse, community and our collective future.
These things happened recently, all around the same time:
1. An article over at Mother Jones discussed Louisiana’s recently approved voucher schools which will teach, among other offensive things, the cohabitation of humans and dinosaurs.
2. Todd Akin said really stupid things about rape.
3. I began to guest blog on Feministe, and my first few posts were met with significant criticism by the readership, as well as plenty of support.
Reading the article about the Louisiana voucher schools, I felt shocked and angry, sure… but I also experienced a different feeling: sympathy. No wonder people believe so many wrong things, and vote accordingly. I believed anything and everything my teachers taught me, especially in elementary school. I believed anything and everything my parents taught me, too. No wonder people are emerging from the American education system confused. How illogical and frustrating it must feel to learn things from those who you respect that are subsequently so thoroughly, vehemently disputed in so many social and political areas. It must feel like the world is unreasonable, and such a person’s sense of certainty, fortitude and defensiveness becomes at least a little more understandable.
For Todd Akin, I feel far less sympathy. He is old enough, and has certainly had enough access to information, to know better. He is in a position of power, and his ignorance is obviously far more frightening than that of misinformed children. Still, I believe there is a difference between ignorance and evil, and I think it is important to distinguish between the two, and to try to understand those we (so justifiably) disagree with. Akin represents a life-long embrace of misinformation, so often accompanied by a religious justification, which creates disastrous– perhaps even “evil”–effects, but to accuse him of having more agency than this is to miss the point, and causes a defensive backlash from him and his supporters. His crime seems to have been to actively deny obvious science and common sense in support of a political platform that he believed appealed to his base of supporters. This is terrible, no question, and it should be discussed and criticized on its own terms, but I think we do our own battle against ignorance a disservice when we lash out with material that vilifies Akin as being devious, or of having a conscious desire to subjugate women (or even implying that these particular remarks are representative of the all-too-real Republican war on women). This approach repels those who might yet crawl out of the bubble and actually learn something.
This is where I come in, hoping to offer some personal perspective. I lived in that bubble my entire childhood. It glittered with the poetry of Psalms, with prayer candles, sweet incense, with shiny shoes on Sundays. During the week, there was home-church with casserole buffets, and there were softball games against other churches on Saturdays, and in the summertime there were “house blessing barbecues” with holy water on the door frames. Christmas was the best because that’s when there were nativity displays with the little baby Jesuses, and an Epiphany play; one year my mother tied a fluffy lamb skin onto my back and I “baaaa’d” loudly when the Angel appeared to the shepherds.
On Halloween there was a big festival; the cake walk was my favorite event because you always won if you stayed in long enough. But we actually participated in Halloween without actually…participating. Most accepted facets of October 31st were seen as representations, if not literal manifestations, of The Devil. Ghosts, witches, those glittery red horns—anything which indicated a sin (including prostitutes, dead people, and aliens)—were forbidden. Instead, every member in my family chose a saint or Biblical character to emulate. One year I was Sarah, Abraham’s wife, based on my own illustrated Children’s Bible. I thought she was so beautiful. Another year I was Corrie ten Boom, a Christian who helped Jews hide and escape from Holland during WWII. She was captured by the Nazi’s in 1944 and sent to a concentration camp. I was 9 years old that time, dressed in black and white striped pajamas.
Inside the crystal bubble I listened to Amy Grant, and learned about a world created in 7 days. I believed that Noah’s Ark carried all the animals to safety, and imagined it would have been fun with the elephants, giraffes, anteaters, horses. I also believed in the Devil and I knew if I saw or felt the presence of him or his demons, I should say “In the name of Jesus Christ, be gone!” I knew– I knew— that if you didn’t invite Jesus into your heart, you would go to Hell, the burning fire place, for all eternity. In junior high I also believed in a physical, paradisiacal place called Heaven, and in the Garden of Eden, and in the huge importance of virginity. I loved summer camp in the Sierra Foothills, which included “Speaking in Tongues” as an activity (after archery, before rock climbing). Youth group was my favorite night of the week, where we played tag football and ate pizza with a hip pastor who taught us how to be good disciples of the Lord. I dreamed of becoming a missionary.
But before I could become a missionary, or a Republican, everything fell apart. There was trauma, and my sister could not recover. God did not save her, despite phone trees, holy water, hymns, and even sessions with a Christian therapist who suggested prayer circle exorcisms to eliminate the demons that were haunting her. Today, she still suffers from emotional, developmental, and psychological disabilities, some of which may have even been deepened by the methods intended to cure them. Soon after, my older sister became ill, and we were abandoned again; she died in 1997. The entire framework around which I had been raised dissolved away in a few short years. Reality flooded our existence. Betrayed and heartbroken, my mother walked away from the church, and she cannot sleep anymore. She struggles with guilt and confusion, especially about my surviving sister, and even a little about the way my own life has developed; as a good Christian woman, she loved her neighbors (John 4:7), but by doing so, inadvertently put her children in danger.
My adolescence was riddled with the chaos of grief, confusion and transition. I ran away into the arms of a 17-year-old boy who taught me about skateboarding, and Sublime, and keg parties, and how our parents just don’t understand. College offered further escape; I loved my classes at UC Santa Cruz and University of San Francisco, drinking up History of Consciousness, Psychology, Women’s Studies, Theater, Philosophy. Yes, I even turned my hair into dreadlocks, desperate for something– anything– that would differentiate me from who I had been for the first 16 years of my life. But it wasn’t enough; finally, cocaine and ecstasy and all-night dancing filled the confused space where I felt a different, more dynamic personality should have gone. I’d been cheated out of experience and information during my childhood, and I was determined to overindulge as recklessly as possible.
And then, right before the self-destruction overwhelmed me, I was pregnant.
It is hard to articulate tragedy as awakenings, and difficult to re-examine a life within the framework of “what if,” but for the sake of argument, I’m proposing we do so (my pregnancy turned out not to be one of these tragedies… but at the time, it certainly felt like it might be). If those things had not happened in my family and in my life, would I still have Jesus in my heart, espouse Pro-Life rhetoric, and teach my daughter about Noah’s Ark and God’s rainbow promise? I think it’s fair and honest of me to admit that, although I am an intelligent woman, the answer could easily be “yes.”
So, for better or for worse, I feel like I can almost understand a person like Todd Akin, and my heart certainly lurches out to those children in Louisiana. I can understand how much these beliefs mean to all of them, and I am so sad and frustrated when I see these no-doubt misguided, misinformed but nevertheless deeply entrenched beliefs manipulated by politicians for the benefit of the upper class. (Cool speech, Paul Ryan.) Contemplating my role, and my unique position as someone who straddles both worlds as part of her identity, I am left wondering how to bridge the gap between “us” and “them.”
Until very recently, I was too consumed with responsibilities to find much time for furthering my own education. Now that my daughter is older and my life has stabilized a bit, I feel I am re-entering the world with an eagerness to learn and a hunger for information and justice. Part of this experience has been the newfound willingness to say “I don’t know!” And part has been to accept who I am, and to not be afraid to step forward as a writer and participate in forums that intimidate me. Like this one.
I have a suspicion that I am not the only one out there (here). Whatever their path, there are people who are presently curious, who deserve the benefit of the doubt, who want to learn. And even amongst the people who “aren’t” willing, there are those who might learn if facts were explained to them without incredulity and sarcasm. I know I’m not the only person to come late to the education party; certainly, late is better than never…right?
I want to be particularly clear about a few things, just in case I have given the wrong impression: I do not believe my life has been any more of a struggle than anybody else’s, I am not trying to position myself or anybody else as being owed a course in sensitivity and diversity, and I do not think the personally negative comments a couple of my posts received are indicative of the overall tenor at Feministe specifically or of a progressive ideology in general. I don’t wish to be perceived as a victim in any way, or as someone above hostile feelings when it comes to subjects that are very personal to me. I am simply writing as a person who wants very badly to help progress the tolerance and mutual respect within our country and our world, and as someone that is very concerned about the disparity opening up between “the left” and “the right” (if you’ll allow me to be a bit reductive). I feel so lucky to have been exposed to this blog, and feel even luckier to have been given the opportunity to express myself so thoroughly here. But still, I’m nervous that some aspects of my Feministe experience so far reveal the ways we instinctively interact with the beliefs and expressions of other people, and how that response can potentially harm the conversation more than help it.
So, a few big questions.
How do we talk to the people who were educated incorrectly– who have Religion or Religious-based textbooks to support the wrong facts, who vote and behave accordingly– without putting them on the immediate defense? How do we encourage curiosity and welcome questions that may hurt/annoy/enrage us? How much intolerance are we willing to tolerate while we attempt to progress the conversation? How do we differentiate between hateful intolerance and ignorant intolerance, or does that differentiation matter? Is the element of religion too large to combat with information, exposure and conversation? Will this gap in our society eventually close on its own, as we are on the “right side of history,” or is it up to us to actively bring the conversation to the rest of the world’s population?
I have no clear answers myself… I know this post is imperfect. I envisioned it as a conversation-starter, and hope that’s the spirit in which it will be taken.
To the comments!! (?)