poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 17, 2014

The Three Tipping Points in Ferguson.

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 9:39 PM
Tags: , ,

Or, “Damn, I thought brain sandwiches were weird, but St. Louis, you have some strange fruit.”

 

I have been asked to write about the “race riots” in Ferguson, MO for PoliSMI.ru. I am not going to write about race riots, because that does not adequately describe what is taking place in Ferguson. On one evening a number of individuals did riot. What is important to understand are the events preceding this and those that have followed.

 

I must qualify my perspective, which is neither that of a journalist nor that of a citizen of Ferguson. I am originally from the St. Louis region (Alton, IL) and have family across the St. Louis metro area, where my ancestors settled in the 19th Century. I have spent a lot of time in north St. Louis County where Ferguson, MO is located. I am white. My little brother used to manage one of the stores attacked in the riot. The following is my understanding of events shaped by reading live reports from local residents, speaking with my friends and family and my own knowledge of the history and culture of the area. I cannot pretend that I am not emotional, that it has not impacted me in personal ways or that I understand what it is like to be there on the ground or a random American in Ohio watching this on the news. I cannot speak for anyone or claim objectivity. I can try to provide context and insight.

 

Last Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old. Unofficial explanations for why police were pursuing him have varied from shoplifting to resisting arrest (for what?) Officially, no explanation has been given. Brown had no criminal record. According to witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air when police proceeded to fire multiple bullets into him, he was denied medical help and his body was left in the middle of the street for hours. Horrified by the unwarranted use of lethal force, the treatment of his body and no explanation for the shooting, residents of Ferguson gathered for a public vigil that evening.

 

The senseless killing of a young man by police. Young black men are shot everyday in America, but we often only hear about it when they shoot each other. We expect black men to kill each other. It’s sick and wrong, but it’s true. That he was shot by the authorities who were entrusted with protecting his life made it both a tragedy and serious professional misconduct at minimum, a State-sponsored hate crime in the eyes of many. While far less publicized, police routinely mistreat and even kill black men in America. But the real-time communication magic of social media was quickly conjured, and news of the disturbing event traveled like wildfire. The shooting of Trayvon Martin was also still fresh in public memory. These factors ensured that the death of Michael Brown garnered public attention, but I expected the event to disappear with the next news cycle. The residents of Ferguson were determined to make sure that did not happen. And they got a LOT of help from Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments.

 

The day following the shooting, peaceful protesters demanding an explanation and investigation were met by riot police pointing guns at them and accompanied by police dogs. Such tactics recall imagery of the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, a time of often violent confrontation between police and American citizens marching for desegregation and voting rights. Protesters in Ferguson already believed that the shooting of Michael Brown was racially motivated. The police dogs and riot gear solidified this fear, the fear that in the eyes of police they were guilty until proven innocent, and that being black in public was the crime. It is worth noting that while the majority of residents in Ferguson are black, the Ferguson police force is almost entirely white, and black residents are disproportionately the targets of police suspicion. That local law enforcement used intimidation tactics in response to people asking for justice was interpreted by many as an attempt by the police to distract attention from their own heinous misconduct and as intentionally confrontational.

 

Late that night, over a dozen local businesses were looted, vandalized and/or burned by young black men. There is dispute as to whether the looters were residents of Ferguson acting out of anger or people from other parts of city taking advantage of the unrest for personal gain or, probably, a combination of both. These riots were not on the scale of those following the Rodney King beating or the Watts Riots of the 1960’s, but they were evocative of them and the unrest that rocked the nation during those years. And with this night of riots, what was previously seen as an unfortunate event in a rough neighborhood became a situation in a major US city. If the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for Ferguson, the riots were a tipping point for St. Louis.

 

Ferguson, located in St. Louis County, is not a suburb in the sense that it is unique geographically or culturally from the city. Logistically, it is located between multiple arterial highways and in close proximity to the airport, area hospitals, etc. St. Louis is a commuter city, with relatively little public transit infrastructure. People drive to work, to school, to the store, to the airport. Which means that despite racial and economic segregation, it is impossible to bypass entire neighborhoods using a subway, as one might do in Chicago or New York. If you run low on gas on the way to dinner or need to pick up milk on the way home, you’re often doing that in a neighborhood that might not be the one you live or work in but somewhere in between. Those are the logistics which bring Ferguson physically into the fold of St. Louis. In terms of identity, residents of St. Louis County are St. Louisans. It’s Midwestern hospitality at its finest. A journalist can point to the borders of St. Louis city on a map, but Benedict Anderson famously theorized that communities are defined in the collective imagination. And those St. Louis city borders do not play a significant role in the collective imagination of the St. Louis community, a.k.a. “Cards Nation”. It is easiest to understand the relationship of Ferguson to St. Louis as that of a small autonomous population within the larger St. Louis community. This is not a story of unrest spreading from a small town to big city, but one of unrest in a local neighborhood becoming impossible for surrounding neighborhoods to ignore.

 

St. Louis is a proud community. Eye-rollingly proud. If you have ever been around Cardinals fans, you know the kind of pride I am talking about. It’s religious. They are better dressed than Chicagoans and neither shy nor haughty. They can give you baseball stats and their opinion of a Napa Valley vintage in the same sentence. They iron the pants they will wear to make the best barbecue you’ll ever eat. They are not intimidated by high culture or afraid of educated folk. They are not embarrassed by low culture or afraid of uneducated folk. They are Missourians who value straight talk and believe gullibility is a cardinal sin. St. Louisans are a mythological everyman. They are America. If you put the rugged individuality of the west, the industriousness of east, the food and music of the south and the non-nonsense simplicity of the north in a VitaMix, what you’d end up with would be a St. Louis smoothie. It would taste like toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, Imo’s Pizza and Eat Rite.

 

Notice: I did not mention anything about scary black people burning down businesses in my mythology of St. Louis. St. Louis is no stranger to violent crime, but violent uprisings, uncommon in America these days, are unheard of in St. Louis.

 

While everyone condemned the riot, reactions to Sunday night’s rampage varied widely and illuminated a divide between the concerns of black and white St. Louisans whose differences had heretofore been camouflaged by universally red baseball caps. Widespread media coverage of the riot angered black residents who felt the media was only interested in portraying them as criminals and savages, as if to justify the shooting of Michael Brown itself. They asked why there was more public outrage about the destruction of property than the destruction of an innocent human being’s life. (A question that resonated in the context of recent Supreme Court decisions giving the rights of corporations more weight than those of individuals.) My white middle class friends and family were wrought with anxiety about if they could get to work the next day with streets shut down, if it was safe to let their teens go out, if the violence would continue and spread to their neighborhoods. They wondered what exactly was meant to be accomplished by burning down convenience stores. Protesters wondered what exactly they were meant to do with their outrage. Many white residents supported the police, whom they described as trying to secure the area and restore order. If you are a white person who has never been unfairly profiled by police, that’s an understandable if naive expectation. White privilege, in essence, is a lack of awareness of the breadth, depth, causes and effects of racial discrimination. And it is a tacit if hesitant acceptance of a status quo which, while admittedly imperfect, feels preferable to a chaotic breakdown of society. What I heard from white residents was a desire for a return to normalcy. What I heard from black residents was a refusal to return to normalcy. They both just wanted to be able to feel safe.

 

And there was racism. I remembered all time times I sat in the back of a car headed through north St. Louis County listening to someone say, “I’m not racist but…” or “Some of my best friends are black and even they say…” followed by pontification about how the behavior of these blacks in north county are why people are racist. Pontification about these people having no self-respect, while leaving out the fact that self-respect has to be taught, and reinforced. Pontification about these people having no work ethic, while leaving out the fact that economic conditions in the area did not favor gainful employment. I knew that black people in this area were collectively judged harshly by white people, and their anger was not just directed at the individual but the mentality that took Michael Brown’s life. And then I imagined, What if my little brother had been in that store closing up when a violent, armed mob entered it? My heart broke. Nothing would justify it if he had been harmed, or killed. And then I imagined, What if Michael Brown had been my little brother? My heart broke. Nothing could justify it.

 

In the days that followed, looting stopped but public demonstrations calling for answers in the killing of Michael Brown -the police department had yet to issue any official statement- continued almost without interruption. Each time the demonstrations garnered a more iron-fisted response from the police, whose ranks had swelled to include the St. Louis County police and tactical forces equipped with tear gas and wooden bullets, which they used without hesitation. Protesters were ordered to disperse and not film anything, in the name of public safety and to prevent a further escalation of tensions. I heard concerns about “outsiders” coming to gape and agitate, making crowd control a security concern. I’ve seen St. Louis police control much larger, equally rowdy, usually drunk crowds outside of Cardinals games and the annual 4th of July fair held under the Arch and know they can effectively do so without resorting to teargas, wooden bullets and media embargoes. Darker explanations for the increasingly vicious crackdown on protests and their media coverage circulated. There was pride. No one wanted this to be what people thought of when they thought of St. Louis. It was becoming an image problem. Some asked, just what were police planning to do that they did not want witnessed by outsiders or documented for evidence? Others recognized the refrain about “outsiders meddling in local problems” employed in a racially charged atmosphere as language lifted straight from the history books about the Jim Crow South. In addition to strong-arm tactics on the ground, an FAA “no-fly zone,” something most Americans associate with the attack on the World Trade Center, an act of war, was placed over Ferguson. It is said that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. What isn’t said is that some people read history and mistake it for an instruction manual. Whatever the explanation for the unusual law enforcement strategy in Ferguson, things were feeling … historic. Not so much because of the importance of the events themselves, but because of those they referenced.

 

By Wednesday, motivated by solidarity, professional responsibility, morbid curiosity or just the opportunity for self-promotion, journalists and civil rights leaders from around the country had booked trips to St. Louis. What they witnessed when they arrived was a police presence that looked prepared to fight the enemy in Iraq rather than to provide security for an American town of 20,000. Outfitted in camouflage, armed with assault rifles, water cannons and explosive devices, perched behind guns atop armored trucks in the middle streets, local police, drunk with unchecked power, appeared to have declared war on Ferguson, MO. In a brazen feat of cognitive dissonance, public officials instructed citizens to remain calm, begin the healing process, work together to return to normal while treating them as an enemy on par with the Taliban. National media were there broadcasting it all. In a routine that was beginning to define the situation, the disproportionate response of law enforcement stoked public outrage. Americans watched and asked how local governments who cannot afford to keep our schools open or even our water running can afford … were those tanks? (They were MRAPs, obtained through a secret program that was news to Americans.) And, why are we treating our fellow Americans like we treat terrorist organizations abroad?

 

The first tipping point was the shooting – it angered Ferguson. The second tipping point was the looting – it angered St. Louis. The third tipping point was the militarization of the police and the denial of freedom of the press – it angered America.

 

While permanently at war these days, America hasn’t been subjected to a ground invasion in any of our lifetimes. Our wars take place on the other side of the world. We do not see tanks on our streets. Military parades and showcases are rare, and even then, the guns on those tanks are certainly not pointed at us. Black people are shot by cops in America. People riot and loot in America. But this was something most of us had never seen before: our police dressed up like Rambo ordering Americans off the streets and telling them what they can write in the papers, like a scene from some bad Hollywood action movie where Soviets have taken over America. White people who were afraid of and embarrassed by black looters a few days ago were now afraid of and embarrassed by these police, who, like the rioters, seemed to have lost both their minds and all respect for the law. These men in camo, aiming their guns at the residents of Ferguson and the mainstream media were police, not soldiers. American military service members, the real ones, were infuriated not only that these local policemen were pretending to be soldiers, but were doing a very ineffective job at it. American civilians were infuriated not only that these local policemen were role-playing as soldiers, but that they had reversed the roles and were fighting against our rights rather than for them.

 

Our country is politically divided, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American who does not believe he or she has the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Criticizing the wisdom of those who practice these rights is a national pastime. But black, white, conservative, liberal, your average American – and what more representative of the average American than St. Louis? – accepts that these are fundamental, Constitutional rights. No right is absolute, but Americans don’t go in for nuance. It is why our right to bear arms is interpreted as “Guns for everyone! Bring ‘em to the bar! It’ll be fun!” Americans will disagree about the right of a dying man to see a doctor before disagreeing about freedom of speech. It’s our little quirk. It’s why we hate Russia. It’s also why when our own police dress up like soldiers and tell us we can’t say that or stand there, our response is not to cower in fear but to mime whipping an invisible Constitution out of our back pocket and say, “Well, actually, uhm yeah we can,” and cock our heads like the mean girls in high school.

 

Knowing their rights, journalists and protesters stood their ground. A St. Louis elected official who had joined the protesters was arrested. Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were assaulted and arrested. Al Jazeera journalists were tear gassed. It is as if the police had not only forgotten that the US Constitution protects freedom of the press, but that the press are the media. To call the events of Wednesday evening a PR disaster for the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments would be an understatement. By Thursday morning all of America was deeply disturbed by how phenomenally out of hand the situation had become.

 

Unable to ignore the evolving breakdown of law and order in Ferguson, which now looked like a war zone, President Obama appeared on TV to say tanks are for militaries and militaries are for killing Iraqis, and no more burning down convenience stores black people, you are making me look bad. Governor Jay Nixon of MO finally got around to damage control and announced law enforcement in Ferguson would be turned over to the highway patrol. In the American psyche, informed heavily by pop culture, highway patrol conjured images of the fun-loving, charming policemen from the old TV show “CHiPs”. The reality was even better, as Captain Ron Johnson, leader of the new security regime in Ferguson, was black, a local and dressed like a policeman, not like G.I. Joe. Images flowing out of St. Louis were now of protesters and police smiling, hugging, conversing. Thursday night thousands of people all over the country attended peaceful vigils and marches against police violence, and a national moment of silence was held for Michael Brown. Tensions between police and the Ferguson community eased and protests continued with little violent confrontation or arrest – Captain Johnson even marched in solidarity with the protesters. The dramatic change in tone that followed the change in police tactics seemed to validate the belief of many that it had been the Ferguson and St. Louis County police who were responsible for fomenting unrest.

 

There are still daily and nightly demonstrations by the people of Ferguson who have yet to receive justice for the killing of Michael Brown. They are now joined by protesters affiliated with radical organizations (such as Occupy), whom the people of Ferguson are concerned will both co-opt and endanger their agenda or behave in intentionally provocative ways. There remains a late-night curfew, but police have shown more restraint against those defying it. There are still hooligans out looking for trouble late at night, but they are now being held in check by their peers in remarkable acts of community self-policing. Things are better, according to those I’ve spoken to in the area. It feels tenuous, but promising.

 

Replacing a hair-trigger police force with a kinder, gentler highway patrol is an effective PR campaign to let the people of Ferguson know their concerns are being listened to and to repair the image of St. Louis on American TV sets. And in fairness, a lot of escalation of the situation can be attributed to bad PR, from the police dogs to the tanks. And in fairness, the message that the people in charge of law and order are supporting those who want law and order is a message we all needed to hear. But the tensions between races did not begin with Michael Brown’s death or the looting and it will not end with Captain Ron Johnson singing kumbaya with protesters. As one person remarked, the people of Ferguson did not create this situation of us v. them but are reacting to it, that if you want to talk about race riots, let’s not leave out the long history of white mobs taking violent action against black people in this country.

 

From the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott, from school de/segregation to a current scenario in which the people elected to represent, the people hired to protect and serve the residents of Ferguson not only do not look like the residents of Ferguson, but do not even share a reality of what it is like to be a resident of Ferguson with the residents of Ferguson… the roots of racial inequality here run deep and wide, and that tree is alive, and its fruit is still left to rot on the ground. Electing a black man as President of the United States could not fell that tree. I do not know what can.

 

But some people have some ideas.

 

June 19, 2014

The Russian Bug, or, An exercise in gratuitously mixed metaphors.

Plus: Odds & Ends, and US-Russia relations as Gogol-esque pathos.

Once upon a time, zhili-byli, this was a proper Russia blog. Back when a pack of cigarettes cost six bucks and the only people who read Russia blogs were those battling PTSD (Post-Transition Sentimentality Disorder.) Now my bad habit puts me back double, every casual nightly news viewer is an armchair Kremlinologist and political blogs have been replaced by celebrity Instragrams. Returning to one’s defunct blog is the internet version of returning to one’s grandmother’s home in middle age. Smaller, emptier and humbler than memory serves. Could use a fresh coat of paint. And it smells weird … like pickles? But its continued existence provides an anchor to the past, and practical reasons for giving up this place – so much work, and no one ever visits anymore – are no match for the insufferable romantic disposition of the writer.

There is no grandmother here to make me soup, but let’s be honest, it’s the indulgence that makes one feel better. And what is more indulgent than one’s own blog? Here I’ve convalesced through feverish delirium brought on by The Russian Bug. “How was Russia?” “It was a living nightmare, poverty, desperation, nihilism, I knew a guy who was killed…” “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” “No, it was soul-achingly beautiful, and the people, the people… and there was just a more sane idea about personal priorities in general, you know? Best thing that ever happened to me probably.” “Oh God. You caught it.” “Caught what?” “The Russian Bug.” Thusly I was diagnosed by the head of a Slavic Department.

People have been known to recover from it, or at least go for long symptomless periods. But there is no cure, only dormancy. Triggers are infinite: melancholia, despair, too many shots of the clear stuff, winter Olympics, Cossacks fighting Nazis in goddamned 2014 and anything that reinforces a belief that nothing makes sense and everything is poetry. Like any addiction, by the time you realize you need help you are already in deep, up at 3am unearthing pre-perestroika Soviet rock from the bowels of the interwebs, re-watching Zvyagintsev’s films for the nth time, reading yet another dry analysis of the collapse of the USSR and practicing personal hygiene worthy of an Intro to Russian Lit protagonist. And as the alcoholic turns to drink to shake the delirium of his torment, the Russophile turns to writing about Russia. Just enough to clear the head and straighten the spine, not so much that one does something they’ll later regret, like start a novel. I can stop writing a Russia blog whenever I want. Lo, look at the sad history of this place – it’s absolutely true. But if I am honest with myself, sometimes all it takes is one bad day, and I’m back to obsessing about souls and international relations and hot Russian men. The first thing addiction steals from a person is shame.

So can I talk about the war?

Is it not a war? A president was forcibly ousted, land was annexed and people are killing each other without even truly being able to explain why. Seems like a war to me. It really pisses me off, war. So I have this thing I am overly earnest about. Everyone has something – usually their children or their art, usually vomit-inducing. For me, it is the load of axes the United States of America and Russia carry around, forever in need of a proper grinding (so they will be ready when the time arrives, and the grinding itself signals to the other that this time has arrived, and it is like the two Ivans, but if they had tanks and nukes.) Especially when those axes are carelessly dropped all over grandmothers and the houses their grandchildren won’t be able to visit again now, and all over the grandchildren too. Ukraine is no innocent victim, but the people who have and will suffer from the policies, military or economic, in play there, or worse, absent there, disproportionately are. These policies have been shaped in no small way by the military and economic axe-grinding of the United States and Russia. No, this is not simply or even primarily a proxy war between Russia and the US or the “West.” The people of Ukraine have their own dysfunctions, grievances, historical luggage, responsibilities, needs, desires, etc. But once you start funneling money, inciting nationalist hatred and outright annexing territory, you are implicated in the instability that follows and must abdicate your “innocent bystander” status. At best, neither the US nor Russia are doing anything to scale back their perceived and/or real involvement in escalating the tensions and violence now witnessed throughout Ukraine and its separatist territories. And the rhetoric from both sides makes me wretch, however legitimate or sincere concerns of the West and Russia may be – and they are. You want to support the development of democracy, be my guest: stop supporting coups, stoking the fires of extremism, ignoring discrimination and giving corrupt oligarchs a pass. You want the world to respect you and treat you as an equal, so do I: start by not engaging in behavior and propaganda that confirms the very worst stereotypes of your nation, that you are lawless barbarians who cannot be trusted.

I’m a peacenik. But I’m not a hippie. My opposition to going around killing our neighbors is a very practical one. When the war is over, after all the death, destruction and trauma, people still have to figure out how the hell to live with each other, and if national borders ensured that, my fair city of Chicago, USA would have neither its notorious murder rate, nor its remarkably peaceful coexistence of Jews, Russians, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis etc. If you need a fence to behave like a decent human being, realize the lack of a fence is not the underlying problem, and that fences can easily be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere. Humans don’t kill other humans because the fences are in the wrong places. They do it because they are angry, afraid and because there is a boatload of money in the military industrial sphere. No arms dealer ever got rich off of our better angels, regardless how often our better angles are invoked in the name of war.

And if I had a dime for every iteration of the “Great Game” explanation I’d be able to pay my rent next month. Sure, there is a great game. But it can’t be played without pawns, and that’s where people like you and I come in. World leaders, oligarchs and their shady intermediaries don’t fuck everything up in a vacuum; they fuck everything up in the petri dish of our anxieties, anger, cynicism and deficit of critical thinking abilities. They need us to be too tired and overworked to care, too impassioned to reason or too helpless to bother either way. Ignorance, apathy and anger are free artillery, charitable donations to the war effort. War is people telling you so sorry but they cannot possibly solve their personal disputes without accidentally killing someone’s mother.
If you think I’m a pedantic idealist when writing on the topic of war, it would blow your mind to hear what I have to say on the topic of US-Russian cooperation.

We are already as ignorant as we need to be, about ourselves and each other. Why go out of our way to cultivate ignorance? Why not … try to understand each other, try to live with each other, accept our differences and celebrate our shared humanity? I recently learned that the name of the original large landmass on Earth, before it broke apart into continents, is “Rodinia.” Alas, the planet is our Motherland, and when we kneel to the ground and kiss the earth in Dostoyesvskian humility, we belong to the same nation. Oh sure a few people would not profit from such an intrinsically spiritual yet astonishingly practical venture – but neither you nor I are among them. (Shout out to the NSA, thanks for reading, I mean you are among them, but you know what I mean.) Invoking the Great Game narrative only gives us a false sense of not being implicated in it. We are.

Look, I am not a beads-wearing, incense-lighting, Kumbaya-chanting happily oblivious stoned wacko. (Though if a pack of cigarettes goes up another dollar, I may begin looking for a dealer.) I don’t generally adore humanity. I’m depressed or angry 90% of the time. I have traumas that freak the fuck out of my acquaintances. I am an American. I am involved in American politics. The fact that you are no saint – this is my point – really is no excuse. The fact that you are a realist is no excuse. The fact that you are angry is no excuse. The problem is not that happy saintly idealists will not make an effort to hear each other out. It’s the bitter, broken, proud, jaded people of the world who need to figure out how to fucking coexist.

They also write the best poetry, you know…

Ok enough about my bilateral frustrations.

I’m only inconsolable because I love you all so much.

When I become inconsolable I behave badly. Sometimes I just lie in bed until noon contemplating the particular shade of blue sky on the other side of the window and wallowing in the lamentations of provincial gulls (Oh, Chekhov…,) sometimes I resolve to end it all and don’t, sometimes I drink cheap wine and watch Scandinavian murder mysteries all night. At this point I am just typically depressed. A dull depression, a stasis, a kind of interminable waiting room of the soul. Nothing is too terribly real. Nothing is too terribly beautiful. It’s canned soup existence, tasting of nothing, better than hunger. Sometimes, however, like an autoimmune disorder activated by a weakened immune system, the Russian Bug bites again. I’m not entirely comfortable classifying it as an illness. For all I know, it is the cure. Certainly it is the cure to canned soup existence. “The mania phase of classic bi-polar disorder,” you suggest, clinically-minded. Mozhet byt‘. No doctor has diagnosed me as such, but it seems as plausible as “the Russian soul, it’s like a vampire and once you are bitten you are doomed to live like a crazy person for all eternity” explanation. Are not both the Gothic monster novel and modern psychiatric classification but crude metaphors for our anxieties and desires?

Hark! Arisen from the crypt of the Poemless blog, cursed, undead, roaming the internet like feral animal and come in through the window to steal your precious innocence:

Odds & Ends: “You’ve read this far – I’ll make it quick” Editon.

Ukraine, Putin, and the West: Putin walks into a bar . . .
By the editors of n+1, a must-read, as in, if you only read one thing, but you are here reading this so if you only read two things about Ukraine, read this. You will be less ignorant for it and people will respect you more. And I’m not even charging you for that advice.

My Mind-Melting Week on the Battlefields of Ukraine Death and disappearance in the foggiest of wars.
By Julia Ioffe. I’m not her biggest fan, but this is a very good, unbiased, on-the-ground attempt to make sense of why people are killing one another in Eastern Ukraine. Spoiler alert: no one is completely sure, but they all have good reason to be afraid.

Who is the bully?
By Jack F. Matlock Jr. Well, you won’t get out of here without being subjected to my usual propaganda about how the US treats Russia like a gaslit mistress and is it any wonder then she acts so unhinged? But this time, it’s written by the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Don’t take my commie word for it. I’m now reading his “Autopsy on and Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union.” 900 pages of sheer glorious foreign policy talk. I told you I was sick.

Why Washington must try harder to understand the Kremlin: The chill in US-Russia relations is not just down to conflicting interests on Ukraine – it stems from a deeper lack of expertise of the Kremlin’s logic and actions.
By Alexander Gabuyev. It’s all well and fine to spend ten years of your life online bemoaning the awful state of US Russia policy. Far better to understand why it is just so incredibly awful. This doesn’t explain everything (like why anyone with an average IQ understands Kremlin psychology better than White House advisors) – but it is an exquisite examination of the global cause and effect of Americans not studying Russian like they used to. Oh it is a dreary world, gentlemen! Send your kids to get Russian degrees for the love of all that is holy. The fate of the world is in their hands. Probably not a great idea to place the fate of the world in the hands of those who would rather read very long murder novels than get a decent paying job. I don’t make the rules.

FYI, I stumbled upon this piece via The Guardian’s New East Network: “inside the post-soviet world”, if you’re into kitsch. It’s all Lenin statues and cabbage over there. Go get yer Ostalgie on.

As I said earlier, I was up all night with nostalgia-induced insomnia and probably watched every Akvarium video on YouTube. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. A bit later this binge dove-tailed with an exchange I had with an acquaintance in Moscow about trains and the soul of the Rodina and whatnot, and I recalled a recent situation in which Boris Grebenshchikov (leader of Akvarium, kind of a genius) got rather pissed off that his song “Etot Poezd v Ogne (This train is on fire)” had been used for pro-war propaganda purposes. Unlike me, he really is a pot-smoking, beads-wearing anti-war hippie, and I’m far more surprised that the people who chose to co-opt the song were unfamiliar with his almost cringe-worthy peacnikery than that they were using this song to bang the drums of war. I am yet more surprised that The New York Times ran an article about it. An article which, quite beside the point, describes the existence as a Soviet artist as such:

“It was a shadow society,” Mr. Grebenshikov said. “But in Russia it had a peculiar form, in that you could live for months without really encountering that other world. The only places you needed to go were the wine shop and the book shop.”

Wait. THE ONLY PLACES YOU NEEDED TO GO WERE THE WINE SHOP AND THE BOOK SHOP? Well they sure as hell kept that bit of info from us American Cold War kids. Look, I am not calling for a full return to Soviet society, cough, but forgive me for not taking more pity on your persecuted soul, BG. Anyway, here’s the song: Аквариум – Поезд в огне.

“You said something about hot Russian men, poemless.”

There were some at the Social Security Administration office on Lawrence the other day, and I would like to personally thank them for making that trip worthwhile (and who even knew you still need the actual card?) But for the rest of you, how about a beautiful Russian song? Ok, and a sexy beast of peacenik!

The magical thing about visiting a grandmother is that she will feed you delicious candies while she lectures you, trying to pass on her hard-earned insights while you are distracted with gluttony. I’m no one’s grandmother, but I am so happy you stopped by.

As always, thank you for reading. Namaste, druzya.

February 28, 2014

Les Misanthropes Take Manhattan

“I came in like a wrecking ball…” I was slumped in the backseat with my luggage, singing along to the faint emissions of the radio as the cab climbed the Queensboro Bridge out of Manhattan en route to La Guardia. I fantasized of a million wrecking balls destroying the city behind me so I would never be able to return. Not even in my memories. I fought back tears and tried to distract myself with the changing scenery. It was late in the evening when we escaped the steel behemoth sliced through with blazing sun, crossed the East River and descended into street level shade. Queens was gritty and gaudy and pulsing with life. While I was ready to be leaving New York, I was struck with regret that only on my journey home was I privy to a glimpse into its unpolished soul. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He meant driving into Manhattan of course. Leaving it was another thing entirely, especially if one were fleeing a claustrophobic hotel room all wrong-headed on pricey cocktails and danger. “You, you wre-eh-eck me.”

It could have been the Triborough Bridge.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town living vicariously through 1970’s & 80’s children’s books set in New York City. Books about school kids who take buses and subways by themselves or who spend nights in museums. But each time I visit I am always a bit sad that it does not inspire in me a marvelous reverie. The New York City of my reality has never lived up to the New York City of my imagination, of my expectations. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies is the problem. Mind you, I don’t dislike New York. Quite the opposite. It feels too comfortable to provoke exhilaration. Too familiar to be disorienting. Too everything to be anything terribly unique. Possibly something in me is broken. Perhaps it is perfectly logical, my disappointment. I accept without debate that this city is the penultimate specimen of human existence, a microcosm of our “condition,” that the entire rest of the world could break off and fall into space forever and still anyone could get a pretty accurate understanding of Homo sapiens from New York City. Certainly my ambivalence is justified. The working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia.

***

We sat in Central Park atop a stone bench with a frozen pond to our backs, watching people watch tumblers and buskers and each other. Someone under a bridge was singing an aria, a homeless woman or a ghost, I wasn’t sure. I told him I wasn’t sure why I was here. In New York. I suggested he was fundamentally unhappy, impossible to satisfy. He spoke of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, of the cheerful optimist who accepts life as it is and of the misanthrope who believes things could be better. That, in fact, the unhappy man is an idealist, whereas the happy man is a cynic. There we were, a couple of misanthropes out for an afternoon of recreational people watching. The story of Molière’s protagonist made me feel better about being sad in New York, but I still didn’t know why I was there. We got up, and he gathered a snowball. I panicked and implored him not to. But rather than hurling it at me, he turned around and threw it into the pond with a splash. “Thin ice,” he confirmed, smiling widely, eyes too aglitter. I surveyed the hole in the pond. It really was.

Before I got into the town car for the airport I left a letter at the front desk of the hotel. It was a town car, not a cab. The doorman had put me in a town car. It was a love letter signed, “I still hate you.” It was just a regular letter and not a love letter, no more than the Triborough is the Queensboro or a town car is a cab. Different details, same obligatory journey to an inevitable destination. In it I let him know that I had been able to get the Guggenheim tickets and apologized for all the crying.

They began at the Modern restaurant at MoMA, the tears. Delayed flights, no sleep and a lack of hot water at our charming vintage hotel would have in reality been enough to make me cry. I’d held back stoically. After finishing the better part of lunch and a build-your-own G&T, I excused myself to use the gender neutral washroom. I was delighted by the concept, glad we can all agree gender is a construct – why make life more complicated than necessary? Moments later it became obvious no amount of enlightened thinking could to transform the blood on the tissue into an outdated opinion. It’s a good thing I pack my purse for the apocalypse; slim chance the fellow in the next stall would have been of much help. I haven’t had a period in a year and now I get one in a gender neutral bathroom. In New York. On holiday. With him. Him who is a him and me a her, nothing neutral about it. The nefarious heterosexual agenda blocked in the court of biology. I returned to the table and wept. I apologized. “Crying is beautiful,” he said comfortingly. So I continued to cry. The room had emptied of the lunch crowd, and the waitstaff looked on brazenly, even smiling when I caught their eyes, as if they were watching a performance, a scene in a foreign film: a married man, a foreigner, buys an unmarried American woman a $200 lunch, and she sobs. She sobs so much she puts on her sunglasses before leaving. No one knows all the reasons she is sobbing. Secretly she is worried she may not have picked the correct combination of bitters and tonic and is perhaps crying about that too.

After lunch I asked him if he were Catholic. There had been a discussion of morality (of course, but also of the aesthetic immorality of flat lighting.) “No. My family is, but I’ve not even been baptized,” he confided. I was genuinely stunned. Up to this point, I’d lived my whole life convinced I was the only actually existing non-Catholic Catholic who had not been baptized. “Well,” I said, exquisitely relieved, “I guess we’re going to spend eternity together in hell anyway then…” and smiled. We looked at tacky souvenirs being hawked along the streets and wandered toward the park, where a large protest against Venezuela was occurring. I didn’t know why they were protesting. They seemed happy.

The tears late that night were worse, angry tears. He’d accused me of being indecisive so I made a decision then and there to leave for a drink. The hotel room and the hotel itself, while appropriately intimate, lacked space enough for the both of us and our confusion and frustration, which it seemed at the time the whole of Manhattan could not contain. Rather than arguing about what we were really arguing about (about what? about “it” was all he could get out) we argued over the thermostat. I was too cold, he was too hot, I wanted to turn up the heat, he kept getting up and turning it off, he was going on about the laws of physics and I about roasting chickens. The temperature in the room had nothing more to do with the thermostat than thin ice had to do with the pond.

I’d inexplicably developed an obsession with Grand Central Terminal during my hours in the city. Movies portray it as intimidating, dangerous, chaotic. A narrative device that swallows up innocent tourists and allows hunted criminals to escape scot-free. A place where people and things disappear in the blink of an eye. I felt a perverse sense of security here. Sometimes in the middle of the night, while my jet-lagged companion slept, I would go out for a cigarette and be drawn down Vanderbilt Avenue like sailor to a siren. Maybe it was the possibility of escape it offered. Maybe it was the constellations on the ceiling, assuming I knew where I was going, happy to guide me there. Maybe it was its sheer size, allowing me to take deep breaths. Maybe it was just the word, “Terminal.” Even now, back in Chicago, I cannot shake the urge to wander down to Vanderbilt Avenue each time I step out for a cigarette. And I can’t. And it’s killing me. … So when I threw on my coat, having firmly decided to flee the climate crisis in room 1067, he followed me to Grand Central Terminal.

Inside the Campbell Apartment, a dark wood paneled bar with thick velvet couches nestled under the station, I cried again. It doesn’t matter why. It is the oldest story in the book. I accused him of using me between thick gulps of a $20 Delmonico which he was paying for. I know, and this knowledge made me cry too. Neither of us, sitting at a little table in a dark corner, were saints. I cried because I wanted to be angels, because we were after all. I cried because I still didn’t know why I was in New York. I cried because the ice was too thin and the room too cold. I cried because around us trains were departing in all directions while we were stuck on a Houellebecqian platform loaded down with our idealist baggage and non-Catholic Catholic guilt, unable to agree upon a shared destination. Most likely it was just PMS, the tears.

We left the bar and went in search of pizza. For a moment I was truly happy, New York happy, thinking a $20 cocktail and a 99 cent slice of pizza was the absolute perfect meal, and absolutely most perfect in New York. For a moment I felt dizzy with the city, the ink black night and orange grease-stained plates and eerie fog rising from manhole covers and gin-induced glamour.

Back at the hotel, with the lights off, I still wept. He got up to use the bathroom. It was locked. We were locked out of our own bathroom. I sat up laughing in bed while a workman with enough keys on his belt to open every room in Manhattan liberated us. We went back to bed. I asked him to tell me a story, but he had no stories. I assured myself that once I left New York I could crawl out of all these metaphors and see the situation for what it really was and drifted off to sleep.

***

I didn’t cry at all the following day after he left for a meeting with clients. May as well live, said the lady in a neighboring hotel. According to Truman Capote, nothing very bad could happen to a person at Tiffany’s, so I began my morning there, wandering aimlessly through rooms of diamonds and pearls and china and Art Deco sumptuousness. I glanced at the men sitting at what looked like bank managers’ desks, consulting with salespeople about engagement rings. They all looked a bit mortified. They’d decided to become saints and were looking like they too could use a $20 cocktail. I felt sad for them. One day they were going to be in a strange city with a strange woman who would cry and ruin all their fun, no matter which rings they eventually decided upon after laborious consultation. But the creamy vertical displays of delicate necklaces and earrings were divine. And the woman at a counter who answered the clerk’s inquiry, “Special occasion? In need of replacement?” with, “No, no. It’s just time for a new ring.” She was divine. It was true, nothing bad could happen to a person in here. Not even to a Communist. “You aren’t American,” he’d joked the first night, “You are a Communist.” It was funny because he was a French Capitalist.

I took a cab, a real one, to the Guggenheim to see the Italian Futurist exhibit. He’d procured tickets from a client’s wife who worked there, but he was now unable to go, so I went alone. I was sorry he missed it. He was naturally prone to boyish exhilaration brought on by feats of modern engineering and aerial views of a metropolis. The previous day we’d gone to the top of the Empire State Building, where he lingered over exhibits detailing its construction and celebrating the financiers who made it all possible, perhaps feeling a place in their legacy. He financed spectacular constructions himself. I paused before the photographs of wide-armed workmen and impossible amounts of steel. “It looks like Stalinist propaganda, no?” I said and strode off in search of King Kong. Outside, I made him point out the Brooklyn Bridge to me and took his photo with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The French and their Liberté… Such a romantic notion, so much suffering in its pursuit. He worried that I was not impressed as we surveyed the city below. Surely he could forgive a girl from Chicago for failing to find novelty in tall buildings. I watched ant-sized ice-skaters while he read the names off corporate headquarters as if crafting an ode to the free-market.

Point 1. of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto: “We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness.” The Futurists, like all artistic movements co-opted by brutish politicians, get a bad rap. But I found the ethos appealing as an antidote to the prevailing Zeitgeist, to our culture of Xanax and Internet voyeurism and flat lighting and entire lives synced to smartphones. We live in fear of the unplanned and of emotions. I envied these artists who not only believed things could be better but were enraptured rather than depressed by the fact. It all felt so impossible, here in the future.

There was an entire room of the exhibit devoted to a Diaghilev ballet starring no performers which boasted a stunning dress rehearsal but never opened due to a labor dispute. Is that not the best story you’ve ever heard? I’d recently seen a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, which caused a bona fide riot at the Paris Opera House when it premiered. I felt a new kinship with Diaghilev, so eager to sink time and energy into futile passions. Perhaps after my death an entire room at the Guggenheim will be devoted to my doomed affairs which, in retrospect, were beautiful and radical ideas thwarted only by the tyranny of others’ quaint expectations.

I returned to Midtown. It was a sunny robin’s egg blue afternoon. School children lined up outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the pale stone buildings of the Upper East Side with all the same green awnings had an anxiolytic effect, much appreciated in spite of myself. I bought some hazelnut bread and kefir at a market where the woman on line in front of me, aged, in fur and too-large sunglasses indoors bought $50 worth of tulips, and this made me happy even though I am a Communist. I walked on, past the circus of feathered pony carriages amassed outside the Plaza Hotel and the Bergdorf’s where I once used the restrooms to change into opera attire after a day of sightseeing (La Bohème at the Met, I cried, like in the movie,) and down to the New York Public Library.

The women’s restroom on the upper floor of the New York Public Library was the first and only glimpse I got into the heart of New York’s dog-eat-dog world of ambitious dreamers. It was like being backstage at a Miss Universe Pageant but for modern day Sylvia Plaths. Someone should really devote a think piece to it. I’ve never seen so many intelligent young women try so hard to appear as if they’re not trying so hard in my life, and I lived a year in a woman’s dorm at Northwestern. I felt miscast in my motorcycle boots and beret and metallic black eye-shadow. Where was I, Amherst or Manhattan? In what universe does a Midwest girl go to NYC and feel like too much of a badass? I wanted to climb atop the counter and make a speech: “Ladies! (nothing too gender neutral happening in here) You are all divine gardens, go cultivate yourselves!” … In the glorious Rose Reading Room I read Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism and composed the letter. I wasn’t crying, but when I glanced up, I found the woman seated next to me at the mile long wooden table staring at me, brazenly. She didn’t pretend not to be and smiled when I met her eyes. I smiled back, unsure of what all this smiling was about.

Back at the hotel, I had an appropriately priced drink, gathered my luggage and left the letter at the hotel desk. I smoked one last cigarette, one last excuse to stroll down to Grand Central, before informing the hotel doorman of my destination. He could call a cab or put me in a town car for $40. I had $60 for cab fare, so I took the town car. Before ascending the bridge out of Manhattan, we passed a diner called “Moonstruck.” It seemed like something I’d make up in a fit of third rate poetic license, but it was real. And then that fucking song came on the radio. “Don’t you ever say I just walked away…” New York, you have to be kidding. The view of the city disappeared behind me while the entire weight of it settled into my heart. I’d left the letter at the hotel addressed to him, to be delivered upon his return, thankful for the Guggenheim tickets, apologetic for the tears, some Hollywood movie line about him making it impossible for me to hate him and I really hated him, some Italian Futurist nonsense about singing the love of danger. But it occurred to me it could just as easily have been a letter written to New York.

It could have been signed, “Love.”

February 5, 2014

Is Annie Hall Damaged Goods? An incest survivor/cinephile’s perspective on l’affaire Woody Allen.

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One room in the basement of the Midwest ranch house where I grew up had been converted into a den. The décor incontrovertibly child molester chic: cheap paneled walls, beige shag carpet, fold-out couch, mounted deer head and the second TV in our home, the one with a VCR. The surrounding rooms, laundry, storage and workshop remained unfinished, lending the den a creepy, soundstage artifice. This was the room where my father would take me to screen pornographic tapes and pleasure him. It was also the room where I, alone and of my own volition, watched my first Woody Allen film and decided I wanted to make movies. Apparently this was a profitable profession for awkward intellectual types. Not all of my innocence had been destroyed in that room.

I was preparing to go to college and deciding upon a major. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than get the hell out of Dodge. I chose film and Russian, not with any serious career strategy in mind but because these were my interests when I was 16. I wanted to go to NYU, but my mother said it was too far away. I landed at Northwestern. My dream of becoming a filmmaker waned after spending lots of time around other people with the same, no, with the genuine ambition. I enrolled in all the film theory and history classes instead and carved out a niche in which I wrote obsessively about cinema, propaganda and the molding of identity. My interest in Russia metastasized. And my admiration for Woody Allen slowly grew into something precious and reliable, like elderly friends exchanging correspondence across continents, or that corner bar in your old neighborhood. Whatever emotional or financial, familial or romantic storms blew into my life, Woody Allen would still be churning out new movies, I’d still be going to the theater to see them and leaving feeling just as dizzy and gorgeous as the first time I saw Annie Hall.

I only became aware of Allen’s lascivious interest in minors after discovering his work. Even then, most of the press, which, as an 18 year old, I was hardly absorbing ravenously, focused on an adopted daughter of consenting age. (Was it? Was I guarded from the more upsetting accusations by a parent’s click of the remote? Did I simply do a successful job of ignoring or mentally suppressing the allegations of child abuse? I’m told people like me are good at that type of thing, forgetting stuff no normal person should forget.) Regarding Allen’s daughter-bride, one felt self-consciously Puritan for objecting too very loudly, yet too viscerally disturbed to say nothing at all. But celebrities do outrageous things every day, and paying too close attention to the fact has always left me feeling petty and small. It was the 90’s. Clinton was President, and I just wanted people to do their jobs and keep their sexual indiscretions a bit more discreet. I’d yet to tell anyone of my father’s. I’m not sure I’d honestly told myself. I reasoned that if no one knew about it, it didn’t really happen. It only existed in my memory, like the flick flick flick of a movie reel at a screening for one. Not part of objective reality, out there, in the world. I had by this time stopped conceiving of my father as an actually existing human being but as something more akin to a monster under the bed, or in it, as it were. Again, not real. Memories can’t hurt you. Just like dreams. Or movies.

Years passed. Memories ended up hurting. A lot. People were told, families fell apart, threats were made, restraining orders were required, psych wards were slept in and, worst of all, my own private nightmare became part of objective reality. But upon unburdening my soul, present life too became real. Crazy romances were had and nervous breakdowns. Travels abroad, lobster boils, midnight phone calls to boys to come kill the spider in my apartment, infinite earnest conversations about literature or movies that sometimes ended in someone storming out of a restaurant, analysts’ couches, therapists’ sofas, movings-in and breakings-up, wet city streets and foggy streetlights and stolen kisses and cabs and jazz and I don’t think any murders but yes a lot of vodka. I never consciously aspired to be a character in a Woody Allen film (ok, save for the few months after the first time I saw Annie Hall.) But I took intimate pleasure in those moments when I could have been. With my track record, I preferred him directing than the God of my youth. Moreover, because he kept making movies, and I kept seeing them, I continued to be treated to a deeply longed for feeling of being understood, known. He kept up with my life like an inquisitive aunt, the external and interior: Europe, check. Crazy painter affair, check. Wanting so madly to live in 20’s Paris, check. Losing all of my financial stability, having complete breakdown and drinking Stoli like water, check. Uncanny.

The actresses, we’ve heard them swoon over his roles for women. I walked out of Blue Jasmine, after having lost everything of my own, dumbstruck. Hollywood – which one must admit, it’s a funny thing we are putting Allen in this category, “Hollywood,” it’s off, no? – it produces almost singularly fucking idiotic roles for women. One dimensional: The Smart One, The Pretty One, The Crazy One, The Innocent One, The Nurturing One, the Dangerous One, The Heroine, The Evil Bitch. Woody Allen can write all these parts into one character and with fascination where others would resort to easy judgment. The fact that any filmmaker would write women as multi-dimensional beings gave me joy. The fact that he’s great at moral ambiguity may or may not be worth celebrating. Amid my own suffering his movies provided a reprieve, an escape and, most importantly, moments of feeling my that own fucked up yet vaguely eventful life was connected to the human condition, somehow universal enough to end up in a major motion picture. And not as a warning or lesson or some bullshit cultural propaganda about how a girl should be. Dignity, if you will. Validation. Solidarity with these other messy women he seemed to love, or at least let be themselves in all their glorious messiness. And if they could be loved… In not the least of ironies, watching his make-believe characters made me feel more real and human than much of my actual experience of reality. I will here unabashedly assert that this is one of the key functions of art.

I’ve no interest in selling the world on the merits of Woody Allen’s films. People love them or hate them or have no opinion one way or the other, and what should it be to me any more than if you love or hate Picasso or Fitzgerald or have no opinion one way or the other? God forbid I were judged solely on my media consumption habits. More than no accounting for taste (there is some actually,) there’s no controlling what resonates with us and what does not. A swoon gives fuck all about metrics. Yet in the criticism I have seen of his better films, the chief complaint is aimed at their subject matter rather than technical skills like direction, mise-en-scene, writing, lighting, pace and whatnot. Self-absorbed privileged people who just talk talk talk about their self-absorbed privileged lives. It’s an over-simplification, one I may have used myself in a dig against a Chekhov play, but admittedly a genre not for everyone.

Unless you actually are trapped in a provincial hell! Woody Allen invited me into a world where people talked openly about their depression, made references to Russian literature and debated the pronunciation of artists for sport, where people took long walks home framed by the towering cityscape, with Gershwin or some melancholy jazz playing in the background. An antidote to my rustbelt “chic” and small town “charm” existence romanticised by urban intellectuals who would run screaming from the street I grew up on. In real life, my life, people never talked about anything they were feeling, made references to TV commercials and debated local sports players. There were not even any sidewalks for walking home down. And if you said “jazz” you seriously had to clarify “not Kenny G.” Not that any of these things are empirically worthy of scorn. But feeling like the weird one all of the time, having maybe one other human being around with whom you share multiple interests, it gets old and lonely. We didn’t have the internet in the 80’s. So where others have seen Allen’s films as homages to annoying rich white people, I saw them as portals to parallel universes where humans were unabashedly cerebral and couldn’t drive and were totally open about their emotional failures. Even their moral repugnance was refreshing, as most of it was safely in the milieu of messy relationships and often worn on their sleeves. Characters in Woody Allen films are defined more by the sources of their shame or unhappiness than by their careers. In my town, everyone was a stoic and a saint and you just had to guess how many bodies were buried in the woods behind their houses. There are people like that in Allen’s films too, and he does a nice job of capturing the suffocating hell of being trapped in a room with them. Those panic attacks, formulaic but palpable. His shticky lack of joie de vivre allowing him to inquire again and again of his characters, “Why do you even go on living? How can you even go on living?” I can’t think of a more poignant question. Their answers are often tragic or comic. They’re rarely inspiring, and sometimes cringe-worthy. But Allen, like Chekhov, is an ethologist not a spiritual leader. He has the questions, not the answers. Moreover, he’s a filmmaker and a writer. It’s fantasy. Storytelling. His movies have no moral or aesthetic obligation to be about anything other than what they aim to be about. Film School 101, guys.

I read Dylan Farrow’s essay in the New York Times recounting her abuse by Woody Allen. I believe her, if people are keeping score. I could not live with myself if for moment I thought I may be perpetuating the culture of responding to people who confess to abuse –and it feels like a confession- as if the victims were the abhorrent and dangerous ones, the sociopaths. I am too familiar with the off-handed remarks about “moral panic” and the systematic discrediting that goes on in almost every instance of incest survivors talking about their own lives. Even among friends and family who do believe you there is often an unmistakable “let sleeping dogs lie” policy. Even in the mental health support services outside organizations specifically for victims attitudes still range from, “we’re not here to debate if it did or did not happen but to talk about your current issues,” to “client is seeking attention, has victim mentality, ‘claims’ own father sexually abused her as a young child.” I would not be shocked if a significant number of practitioners and lay people in 2014 harbor the Victorian belief that claims of childhood sexual abuse are projections of subconscious fantasy gotten all confused up in a weak child’s mind. It seems we are willing to believe anything, however bizarre or damaging, EXCEPT that grown men violate women and children. In fact, I would argue that the systematic profiling of women who have experienced childhood sexual abuse (or rape, etc.) as lying/manipulative/deranged is potentially as damaging as the abuse itself. I don’t think anyone who has enjoyed a Woody Allen film is implicated in the abuse Farrow describes. I do feel that everyone asserting that she is lying/manipulative/deranged is implicated. This is exactly what perpetrators bank on. This is exactly why people do not come forward. This is exactly how institutional discrimination functions. Neither you nor I nor any journalist nor Woody Allen himself can attest better to Dylan Farrow’s life experiences than Dylan Farrow herself. Period.

Is it irresponsible of me to accept her word on the chance she could be making it all up, considering the damage it could do to his reputation? If you would err on the side of protecting a grown man’s feelings or career over a young child’s welfare, I am afraid to even ask why. Do I think the court of public opinion is the place to decide these verdicts? No. Unfortunately, neither is our criminal justice system. Innocent until proven guilty is great for crimes that can actually be proven in a society that actually wants to protect victims. Besides, it is not simply a legal issue. No jail sentence can change the fact that Farrow cannot escape the image and legacy of the person who triggers in her such fear, hurt and grief. My father is not a celebrity, and I still must be vigilant and police my life in a way that makes me feel safe and protected from his presence. I cannot even imagine never being able to escape it.

But Woody Allen is not my father. And I am left with the eternal question: Can one separate the art from the artist? Certainly there is some percentage of the time a direct relationship between moral corruption and artistic creation. Exploring unspeakable acts or desires provides one with a rare insight into existence and meaning, and probably some violent need to purge the soul, maybe through the act of creation. The willingness to explore the deeper corners of the psyche may require suspension of morality to reach them. The creative mind, churning out fantasy after fantasy may lose the knack for discerning reality, or maybe never cared for it much to start with. The twin drives of destruction and creation. However, I don’t think delinquency is required of an artist or storyteller, nor do I think creating art absolves one of sin. What I do find incredulous is the idea that one can be a great artist in spite of one’s moral failings, any more than one can be a great lover in spite of being a tax cheat, or that I can be myself in spite of myself. I’m also perplexed by the idea that an artistic creation can catch moral cooties from its creator, that it cannot be judged on its own merits. Neither of these assertions, both bandied about in public conversation, strike me as having much substance. I truly fail to see why we cannot acknowledge that creative genius and human cruelty can co-exist in the same soul, why we cannot accept that a creation has value beyond that of its creator (and this is film, what of the hundreds if not thousands of other people who worked on his films?!) but does not provide a free pass. People are not all good or bad, but combinations of degrees of both. In Allen’s case, they happen to be very extreme degrees, in my judgment. Some will say his films are crap, which is fine, so long as something besides the fact that he’s a creep informs this opinion.

If this were a scene in a movie, I’d be lying on a couch being informed by an analyst that my continued love of Woody Allen films despite my belief that he molested his daughter can be explained by my “daddy issues” – a term that makes me want to crawl out of my skin because it suggests I am still a child and the main effect of sexual violence against children is kink. I would be told that I want to love my father but cannot so I project it on to Allen, who reminds me of my father because he digs the kids. Close but no cigar, Dr. Freud. Indeed, my ambivalence about Allen comes easily because of my own experience with my father: I have already learned to live with evil even in the spaces where it should not be, physically or psychologically, and still find rare moments of happiness and meaning in those spaces. Or, not having mastered the ability, I have had gobs of practice. I’ve never been afforded the expectation that life fit comfortably into any preordained narrative. That only happens in the movies, you know… Besides, if I did have daddy issues they would more likely be projected onto some sexy alpha badass like Vladimir Putin or James Spader, not a little basket case. Enough about that.

I am, in addition to being a survivor of incest, less exceptional in my love of film and art and great storytelling. And I can’t avoid the question which must haunt many of Allen’s devotees: What if? What if we lived in a truly just society and upon the first inkling that he may be mistreating children he were investigated and put behind bars forever? Some would even advocate the death penalty for those who rape young children. Surely no such person should avoid severe punishment. And who even knows when and with whom his behavior began. Do such desires suddenly pop up midlife? Unlikely. Would it be worth it for the children if it meant no Woody Allen movies? Can we weigh one’s contribution to society against one’s crimes against humanity? Would you personally be willing to take responsibility for there being no Woody Allen oeuvre, or, insert the writer, painter, inspiration of your choice here, the one that made you get an MFA or got you through that breakup or whose painting hung in the bedroom at your grandmother’s, if it meant preventing or stopping the harm done to a few children, with the only evidence of such harm being the victim’s word? “Yes,” you say. “YES!  YESS!!  Children over art!” you declare. “THINK OF THE CHILDREN.”

Everyone’s all about the children in public discourse. The actual reality for many children would suggest we do a lot more thinking of the children than working to ensure the safety of the children. Forgive me if I am cynical about your professed idealism. Forgive me if I feel like you are shouting a bit too loudly. Forgive me if I wonder what you are going to do with that outrage besides create a public record of your stance against child abuse. Forgive me if I expect a bit of nuance in our public debates. I myself am against child abuse, if I am going on the record because we’ve turned a teachable moment into an Inquisition. I thought that was a given, along with murdering innocent old people. No one is going on record in support of it. Lower your voice; you are making me uncomfortable.

I’m also familiar with the power of art to heal. Theo Decker did not carry that damn painting around his whole life simply because it was a convenient plot device. (I just finished The Goldfinch, and you’re going to keep hearing about it from me for another ten months minimum.) I’ve always felt safest, most innocent and most decent in an art museum. Many of my fondest memories of my mother, who passed away when I was 25, are of days I’d skip class to have a day in the city with her at the St. Louis Art Museum. (Aside: her name was Rosemary, and when goofing around I would taunt her, “Look at my eyes! They’re not normal!” An added layer of kinship with Dylan Farrow.) She had been an art teacher before I was born, had done the whole living in Florence studying frescoes bit, and surrounded her children with art, art history books and all of the art supplies we ever asked for. I was far more interested literature, but literature was what I buried myself in with the door closed after my father got home from work. After school, with my mother, I’d be sprawled out on the living room floor pouring through glossy encyclopedic tomes on Michelangelo and DaVinci or paining kabuki faces on the backs of paper plates. It is perhaps no coincidence that I associate art with my mother and those late afternoon hours of peace before my father’s car rolled into the drive. To this day I use the Art Institute of Chicago as personal refuge, asylum.

I imagine walking in one day to find the walls bare and galleries emptied because of the sins of the men behind the work. I doubt most of them were saints. Hell, I doubt most of the saints were saints. And who would get to decide what sins counted? Sexually abusing a young child, we can all, most of us, a majority I think, agree that would be a bannable offense. (What about paintings commissioned by the Church – what level of moral corruption do they expose us to, implicate us in?) Being an advocate of genocide, we should definitely not be entertaining the works of those assholes. Rape? I am not sure the idea of women being allowed to consent to sex even existed when maybe 90% of the paintings in your average great museum were completed. And if we get into the sin of being intoxicated with anything but the Holy Spirit, bam, no gods left in my church. Yes. In our game of historical revisionism, I would have Allen locked up too. Because think of the children, but protect them too for crying out loud! But I am not going to pretend this is a case which presents no ethical dilemmas or provokes no soul searching. I’m not going to pretend it is not messy. It’s Woody Allen. He wouldn’t give us a scandal if it weren’t dripping with messiness, loads of guilt and some tedious debate about art.

Perhaps we opt for the simplistic solutions, public condemnation of his entire legacy or smug dismissiveness of the whole matter, in order to avoid guilt by association. Of course we do. The only insight worth adding to that is actually a very very very fucking important insight: If you feel guilt by association from simply watching a film or thinking about someone you admire doing something unconscionable, pause for a moment to imagine the guilt felt by victims. Observe the intense and irrational power shame and horror and denial and grief have over even the average bystander when we speak of childhood sexual abuse. And realize this is an inkling of what an actual survivor experiences. And know that it doesn’t go away with the next news cycle.

Secretly I worry the vocal support for Daryl Farrow is only from people who never liked Woody Allen’s movies anyway, myself excluded, and his being publicly outed as a child predator makes them feel vindicated in their filmgoing habits. This incessant scouring of magazine archives for poor reviews – as if making a slew of crappy films were more damning than abusing a child in his care, the real nail in the coffin of his reputation. What are you even doing? You read the New York Review of Books – you don’t even own a pitchfork. It doesn’t work that way anyway, you know. I’m aware of no law of nature that states talent and corruption are mutually exclusive. Mind you, it does not work the other way either. Believing Allen to be a man of great skill and worthy of a lifetime achievement award does not necessitate your disbelief of Dylan Farrow’s accusation. And if you were as righteous as you seek to appear, you would know a person’s account of childhood sexual abuse is absolutely not ever an invitation to gloat, regardless whose side you take. As if there were clear sides, as if we were discussing a football match. Secretly I panic we will give Woody Allen a proper show trial, make an example of him and wash our hands of it, go about pretending incest and all of its psychological, emotional and social repercussions do not exist. Secretly, like many, I don’t even want to believe her. I don’t. And the truth is, I don’t want to believe it happened to me. Who among us would want to believe it happens ever, at all? And I want the outrage to be aimed at my father who doesn’t even make brilliant films but works for a large oil company killing the planet. And I want to believe people are good and children are safe and art is sacred and my joy isn’t tainted. And I want her to walk up to him one day and gun him down in cold blood so we can live vicariously through her instead of Annie Hall. Don’t do that Dylan.

Short of advocating heinous crimes, I support Farrow doing what she needs to do, for justice, closure, education, healing, sanity, all of it. If that means writing an Op-Ed or asking no award be given, fine. I don’t know what withholding an award from a man who isn’t into awards or shaming actresses just doing their jobs will accomplish, but I do sincerely hope this can be an opportunity for awareness-raising, not just about one celebrity’s sins, but about the effects of abuse and the systemic hurdles facing those who survive it and who wish to come forward. I don’t have high hopes, but I’m giving everyone a solid chance to prove me wrong.

I’m going to continue doing what I need to do. And sometimes that will involve burying myself luxuriously in a Woody Allen movie. I know, my solidarity skills with real life humans need some work. Survival has made me a lone wolf. Survival has also made me fierce about holding onto the good memories, savouring the delicious bits and taking sanity where I can get it. I’ve lost so much, if parting with my soul-mates Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris is optional, I must decline. I won’t forgive Woody Allen – I’m with Ivan Karamazov on this one, no one gets to do that on the victim’s behalf. And it is not my place to say what his penance should be – I’ve no interest in saving his soul. But I will still watch his films. And I will still love them, perhaps even more than before. Perhaps I’ll open a foster care for all the orphaned Manhattans and Match Points no one wants because they came from a bad home, shit parent and they’ve only become more dysfunctional and toxic over time, and we’ll have weekly support groups, and when I am 60 Vice will write about the crazy incest survivor who built a shrine to Woody Allen films in her studio apartment.

How can I even watch them? By employing the suspension of disbelief required of any audience from any filmmaker, which is really not unlike that required of a young girl instructed to lie/lay down by her father for something that will become their little secret. We all know how to do this instinctively, how pull focus when our needs and desires lie beyond the gut-wrenching reality in the foreground of our lives.

How can I still love them? This is a far less easy question to answer, and I have been working at my entire life. I have to love myself, and my father created me. If Annie Hall is damaged goods, why should I even go on living? How can I even go on living? Probably by self-medicating with a cocktail of therapy sessions, Russian novels, the entire jazz catalogue my friend downloaded for me before moving away, writing something completely self-absorbed as a purgative, and hopefully making someone laugh now and then. Go to a boring party. Fall in love. Maybe catch a movie. Typical stuff a person may do to distract from the sheer horror of existence. Less than inspiring? Cringe-worthy? Not for everyone?

And I’ll continue telling my story and drawing attention to the array of injustices facing survivors of incest long after you’ve finished reading this and judging me for loving Woody Allen movies.

That is my why. That is my how.

November 11, 2013

Entitled

“You should write that down.”
“What? What did I say?”

I was at a Mexican restaurant in Pilsen, post-Dia de los Muertos celebrations with a friend. The cuisine wasn’t ideal for the sour stomach I’d been nursing for days – nerves, self-diagnosed – but what came up violently from the hellfire depths of my core was a frustrated, righteous, angry, thoroughly exasperated and unnecessarily apologetic rant about the quote-unquote mental health system.

“The mental health industrial complex,” my friend corrected me. Mind you, they ran a trauma support group at a local service provider.

People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality.

Or something like that. That is what they said I should write down. But we both in truth immediately forgot it the moment the suggestion was made, as if this profound insight had been uttered in a trance state from which we’d abruptly awoken. So I think that is what I said. It’s what I am writing down. It seems so innocuous, that string of words in italics. That cannot possibly be what I was instructed to commit to perpetuity. But I’m rather certain it was. Perhaps it was a sentiment expressed more eloquently in skeleton face-paint. Perhaps, taken out of context, it lacks the crescendo of the revelatory moment following rum- and festivities-induced lucidity. Written alone on a computer screen, indoors on a luminous autumn afternoon, the classical music station pledge drive providing the whitest of white noise soundtracks, it lands on the page with a soft thud. What the fuck do these words even mean?

They mean that in my experience, and in the experiences of many others, the treatment provided in the established mental health system quite unsettlingly mimics the dynamic that defines/allows traumatic abuse. And that dynamic is: people in positions of power and authority defining reality for their subjects. The gaslighting of the abused and the unspoken threat, “It’s my word against yours and you are obviously unstable while I am an upstanding member of the community,” is frankly not much different than the diagnosing someone with complaints of severe traumatic abuse as having a personality disorder.

I have no inkling as to the motivation for the latter phenomenon, but it seems like a built-in feature rather than the work of a few bad apples. Say you are raped, beaten, locked up as a kid. For example. You might grow up to be a successful professional or you might grow up to be a homeless addict. Regardless, you are quite likely to grow up and still have some issues, be it an inability to trust people who say they love you, a searing emotional pain you do secret things to alleviate, bouts of inexplicable depression or neurosis, paralyzing panic attacks or nightmares or both, getting ill frequently, having idiopathic neurological weirdness like chronic migraines, fainting spells, weakness. You probably don’t sleep too well. Maybe you tell yourself these are character flaws. That you just can’t do anything right. Normal people can make their parents love them, and you couldn’t even do that. So you beat yourself up. Or maybe you’ve moved past that phase, if only because it obviously doesn’t solve anything or help you sleep. Maybe you know fully well that these are not moral failings but well documented psychological and physical ailments commonly associated with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Well, you have some trauma in your past, and if it originated in your family, it’s probably not even comfortably in the “post” category. If you were systematically harmed by someone who was supposed to protect you, you’re probably very experienced at being inconsolably sad. Alas, you may feel enlightened to have made the connection, but it may not be enough to stop these pesky symptoms that are probably a lot peskier than you want to let on. Because that shit is personal. And you have trust issues.

There are a million ways it may have begun, this “seeking services behavior.” Perhaps you were empowered by an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that assured its audience that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps your roommate came home and found you unconscious after one of your “just trying to ease the pain” sessions that wasn’t intended to go this far (but if it did…) Perhaps your bff suggested you take some time off and maybe just give therapy a try? Perhaps you inadvertently scared the fuck out of everyone you know. Perhaps you are simply being a fine upstanding responsible citizen who sees the doctor because you obviously have some type of chemical imbalance and there are drugs that cure that and you would be negligent not to take them. You owe it to your loved ones, your co-workers and yourself. You are proactive. After all, you didn’t go from being locked in the basement like a sex slave at the age of 5 to a well-educated, world-traveling, fully employed human being without being proactive!

So you get to the doctor’s office. You are given drugs. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Maybe they work for a while and stop working. Maybe they ease your symptoms but the side-effects are worse than the cure. Maybe more drugs are added on to counter the side-effects. Maybe the original drug is switched. Once. Twice. Three times. Maybe your doctor suggests that despite apparent inefficacy you do not stop taking drugs, whatever you do. It’s too dangerous. Maybe you are given new experimental off-label use drugs. Maybe you are given a stimulant for depression, a sedative for insomnia, a benzo for panic attacks (made worse by the stimulant) and an atypical anti-psychotic because even though you are not psychotic, the doctor reassures you, they have a great success rate when added to an anti-depressant. Maybe you are still having nightmares and panic attacks and your memory is shit and you feel stoned all the time and wonder if people can tell. Maybe you tell this to the doctor. Maybe the doctor changes your diagnosis from “Depression” to “Bi-Polar” because you are not cured by SSRIs. Maybe you tell the doctor you don’t actually have manic episodes. Maybe that doctor tells you that’s what Bi-Polar II is, bipolar without the mania. “With hypomania.” “What’s that?” “Do you ever have times you are feeling very confident and productive and happy?” “Yes.” “That’s the Bi-Polar hyomania.” “Oh. I never thought that was a problem, to be honest. I’d like to keep that part.” “Do you want to get better or not?” Maybe your doctor thinks your are being difficult. Maybe you go home and blame yourself for not getting better. For not trying harder. For not being able. Maybe you spiral down a hole of self-doubt. Your doctor hates you now. Way to fuck everything up. Everyone hates you. And you’ll never get better. You are beyond help. You have to live with this stupid suffering bullshit for the rest of your life. Because you are drug resistant and doctors hate you.

Maybe you decide no way are you going on like this for the rest of your life. Besides, you’ve really only become a burden to your friends with all your mental health mumbo-jumbo lately. And your family is basically never going to forgive you for opening up this wound, talking openly about ugly family secrets. And you’ve managed to go from someone who knew how to function outwardly and keep her ailments a secret, on the inside, where they belonged, like that other stuff, to someone people look at and just see INCEST and SUICIDE and MENTAL CASE. Maybe you cannot even look yourself in the mirror. Maybe you swerve violently between desires. The devil on one shoulder wanting to ending it once and for all, out of breath and energy, too emotionally drained to fight and you know it will always be a fight, with a society that doesn’t understand how to help, with a system that won’t accommodate a spectrum of abilities but only sees black and white, with yourself who is hell-bent on killing yourself, replaying a dark childhood self-defense fantasy triggered by every single injustice, hurt, fear… And the angel on the other shoulder who makes a very compelling case about loving your family and friends too much to do that, about the fact that you don’t actually want to die, you want to live in less distress, and about whoa there, you did not survive all that to throw in the towel now, girlfriend. You aren’t the one who needs more punishment here. You didn’t get yourself abused as a kid. You didn’t get yourself mental by shooting up in an alley. You didn’t invent your messed-up family situation. You didn’t give your mom cancer. You went to school, did well, got a fancy degree and job in academia, avoided jail, addictions, unplanned pregnancies and eating disorders. You are a fucking inspiration. That’s what they said. You took the meds, you went to the therapy sessions, you did the CBT worksheets, you called people when you felt you were a risk to your own life. You took vitamins and did yoga and served food to the homeless. You don’t get to hate yourself. You are not the one who failed dramatically here.

Maybe with new-found perspective and girded with the courage of your convictions you go to your doctor and suggest a possible link between your, you know, that, and your current struggles. Maybe you have some kind of PTSD. Maybe you would like to not take so many drugs and do a little more hard-hitting stuff in therapy. Maybe your doctor looks at you like you are nuts. Maybe your doctor is visibly angry at you and scribbling more notes than usual. Maybe your doctor starts asking more questions about your personal life, more questions about why you are not married and have no kids. Maybe you think this has nothing to do with why you are in his office… Maybe he tells you you want to be miserable based on your confession that you don’t want kids or a husband. Maybe he tells you not to think about your past. Maybe he suggests that you are making that up.

Ok. Maybe you change doctors. What century is this, amirite? Maybe you have this experience repeated with the next doctor. And the next. Maybe you are accused of doctor shopping. Maybe you are now spending all of your time at the doctor’s talking about your dating habits, your living by yourself, your curiously assumed inability to form stable relationships. “But I can give you my friends’ phone numbers, no really. And M and I were together for like 8 years, it ended because we’d become more like roommates, and he was seeing someone else. And the other guys I’ve dated, well, I haven’t been looking to settle down, and my personal life is overall something I am perfectly fine with. I have fun. Yes, I was devastated after the cabbie, but I mean, getting your heart broken, I don’t think that is mental illness… Why are we talking about this and not my dad?” Maybe you notice the doctors also spend an uncomfortable amount of time commenting on your good looks. Maybe you keep going back because the Klonopin and Wellbutrin do help. Not cure, no, but help, yes. Still maybe you make less and less an effort to pretend this hasn’t become a fucking farce. Maybe your insurance is about to drop your LTD (Your employer offered it up: you have benefits, take them. Your friends agreed: yes, do this for yourself.) because you’ve seen a lot of doctors and gotten a lot of different diagnoses and it just seems fishy…

Maybe I am talking about myself.

Maybe the therapist I had been seeing was actually really good. And I have seen a lot of therapists. And I knew I had something I needed here. Maybe the therapist gave me Judith Herman to read. Maybe the therapist scoffed, lectured and exasperatedly reassured me I do not have Bi-Polar Disorder and I do not have a personality disorder. Maybe he called it “Complex-PTSD” and “melancholia” because I hate the word “depression.” And I want to believe him because I spend 2 hours a week for a year talking to him, whereas I meet with a psychologist for 5 minutes a month and he talks mostly about my looks and boys and it’s just awful. Maybe I spend most of my time in therapy talking about stuff that feels a bit subversive. Society. Feminism. The way women are treated differently than men. Not wanting to change who I am fundamentally. Wanting empathy. Empathy helps. Liking who I am cures my anxiety. Anger. How I’ve always been terrified of anger, associating it with my father, never feeling it, only feeling hurt or fear. How I was becoming pro-anger. Anti-violence, but pro-anger. How I found it amazingly motivational and grounding. Maybe we had a plan where I would call him and stay with a friend or family member if I was “in crisis” rather than going to the hospital, which he thought would be too degrading and isolating. Maybe it was a life-changing experience the way you secretly think no way can therapy be. Maybe it didn’t cure me or make me a more suitable member of society. Maybe it gave me a far deeper appreciation of my messy parts that I don’t want to disappear or to have to hide from people. They are for better or worse my battle scars, my monument to an innocent victim who is not dead yet. Maybe that’s just where I am at. Maybe in ten years I will wake up and think, ok, suffery girl, your time is up. Get out. But suffery girl has a lot to say and isn’t finished and unlike others, I’m not going to make an effort to shut her up. She’s real. She’s a hell of a lot more real than well-adjusted girl. Anyone can learn to fake it and pass for what is expected of them. Well, I can. But learning the ability to walk up to a disgusting mess oozing with INCEST and SUICIDE and MENTAL CASE cooties and being in the same room with it and listening to it takes time and trust and love. And if that’s what I am asking of my friends and family, I better be able to do it myself.

Maybe I was in a good place.

Maybe my insurance ordered an independent medical exam. Maybe I was told I would lose my insurance if I did not appear at the appointment they’d made for me. Maybe I went. Maybe I was summarily dropped shortly thereafter. Maybe it took 6 months and a lawyer to get an explanation and instructions for appeal from my insurance. Maybe I was sitting in a law office 2 weeks ago staring in shock at the psychiatrist’s conclusion: “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

Maybe I had a therapist who had prepared me for the fact that this is a “thing” that happens to women who want to die and who say they were abused. Maybe I intellectually knew that. Maybe I was still in shock that it had happened to me. I don’t boil bunnies. I love bunnies. I am a trusted pet-sitter. I received “superior” performance reviews at work. I send thank you cards. I hold the door for the elderly and march for inner city school kids and volunteer with the homeless and floss (ok, weekly) and offer to help clean up at dinner parties. I am a good person. Who is extremely sensitive, uptight and has a weird autistic thing where I don’t trust people once they are out of my sight, but I’m actually very ok with my personality and don’t give a fuck if someone else isn’t. What the hell does my personality have to do with this? I am in treatment, not a popularity contest. What the hell? I go out of my way to be nice to people I’d much rather kick in the eye. How do I not get points for that? Who makes these rules?

Oh God. I knew it. The person who raped and beat and locked me up and all that during my childhood was my biological father. BIOLOGICAL. He was a monster, and I am his offspring. I inherited the evil. I have feared this my entire life. I have looked in the mirror and cried. I have been literally trapped in this body, in this being, created by a psychopath. Is it any coincidence my mother is named Rosemary? No. Ok, maybe that’s just silly. But being a psychopath is a real thing, and mental illness is inheritable. Jesus, that psychiatrist was good. He could see right into my soul. Past the pleases and thank yous, past the helping the under-privileged and aged. Past my kindness toward animals and fondness for literary and artistic pursuits and peacenikery. Right into the evil in my soul which I myself could not even see.

Oh God.

I spent a week in bed sobbing in grief for the good person I wanted to believe I was. I made every intellectual argument against the psychiatrist’s findings I could. He’d barely even met me. He left everything about my being generally plagued with sadness and anxiety out of the report. This had happened to others. It was well-documented. Female. Suicidal. History of childhood abuse. Does not respond to medication. Borderline. Still, I could see it in my lawyer’s eyes. He said he would not take my case pro-bono. Obviously it was clear to everyone but me that I was a lunatic and a scam artist. And a failed scam artist at that. Obviously that was part of the whole mental illness scene: you are too fucking crazy to know your own self. Or reality. Though the dropping the disability was a bit illogical, IMO; people that delusional being fit for work? Where? Is the funny farm hiring then?

Some of the psychiatrist’s other findings were that I was:
“Angry.” Ok, yes, now I am. Very. However, I’ve spent a year working on being ok with feeling anger, so that seems very bait and switch.
“Entitled.” To what? Yes. Probably that is true. I feel entitled to all kinds of things: dignity, support in the “recovery process,” a job situation that matches both my needs and abilities, security, a roof over my head, basic medical care, not having white male strangers in positions of power fucking me over. Super entitled. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, and I do have the right to opt out of a Calvinist worldview. It’s one I have exercised.
“Lacking insight.” I’ve spent my entire life being praised on my pretty eyes and keen insight. At this point I question if files have been mixed up.
“Playing the victim.” It’s not an act, sweetheart. Not a performance. I’m not here to entertain anyone. No one is entertained. If I do however “act” like a victim, it’s probably less to do with pantomime more do with how my father “acted” like a rapist with a leather belt, like a pornographer, like a criminal, and how my mother “acted” like she had cancer and died when I was younger, and how my cousin “acted” like he blew his brains out and my family “acts” like they drink a lot and … should I go on?
“Manipulative.” Because while I say I want to kill myself, I have not done so. Ok, that’s just not fair! I should prove I have depression and not a personality disorder by actually dying? Didn’t they do that shit with witches and drowning? The fact that I have NOT offed myself and have “services seeking behavior,” that’s responsible stuff I did right. You don’t turn that shit on me.
“Thin.” Thank you.
The report also called into question the veracity of my claims regarding my abuse.
The report also highlighted my political activism as well as my lack of husband and children.
The report also stated that based on the patient’s description of her emotional distress, she can only be lying, as it is more extreme than anything the psychiatrist had ever seen.

Well I doubt that. I’ve done the psych ward circuit and have seen worse myself. And I happen to know I was not lying, because I was me and there while answering his questions, and there is no note of demonic possession, and I actually remember it all very clearly (yay for my non-existent PTSD which can make me relive scary things in vivid detail) and I remember quite clearly telling the truth. But, well, should I donate my body to science or something? Seriously. That is fucking frightening.

Despite intellectually knowing this report was full of holes, unfounded claims and was written for an insurance company for whom I had become a liability, I internalized every last ounce of it. It was one thing to play a social radical on the internet. Another thing entirely to be on the receiving end of discrimination. First, what were the odds? I had already been a (legitimate, not making that up) victim of my father. Wasn’t one egregious injustice enough for a lifetime? If there were a pattern, wasn’t I the common variable? Wasn’t this on me? Oh, I could look at systematic racism or poverty and see how repeated injustice seems a feature, not a bug, in our society. But I’m white middle class. Literate, eloquent, drug-free, law-abiding citizen. Where is the privilege I’m always hearing about? Sure, I am female, but this is 2013. I can’t be discredited and dismissed out of hand like … other people. Right? My desire to be heard or treated with respect poses no threat to the status quo. I cannot flatter myself with the convenient explanation that The Man just Fears me. Right? Moreover, a healthcare professional would not blatantly say something so distress-inducing to someone already experiencing more distress than they know how to handle unless it were true, would they? Do no harm. It’s an oath. So there must be a rational, necessary justification for the harmful nature of this report, something scientific and impersonal and for my own good. I just am too nuts to see it.

I internalized the FUCK out of it. There was no fighting it. Who are you going to believe? A scrounger or a doctor? There was no telling my friends in hopes of getting reassurance I was not horrible person. Regardless of their current opinion of my decency, I’d have to plant the seed in their mind: a professional conducted a forensic psychiatric exam and found me to be a lying, evil, awful person. If my friends had come to me in the same situation, I would think, why of course that is nonsense. But later, when they did something to piss me off, or made a poor life choice or were PMSing I may think, wow, maybe she is a psycho. … No, I wouldn’t. But I can only speak for myself. Who knows what they would do. My track record for trusting people is not hot. Part of me actually trusted this psychiatrist to give an honest and empathetic report of my well-being. And that part internalized his findings. Why expect anyone else not to?

I had dinner with friends the day after I received the report. One brought belated birthday flowers and wine and chocolate. The other cooked. I did not tell them what had happened, but I put on no airs. I hadn’t slept or eaten. I was in a bad mood. The CTA was late and I bitched about that. I didn’t pretend to like anything I didn’t. I didn’t say nice things just because. And I waited. And they were lovely. They treated me like they always had. They shared their recent travails, funny stories, we drank wine and talked all night. It was disorienting. How did they not see I was a terrible person? A hysterical, manipulative, deceiving, entitled bitch? Why were they treating me like a nice person, a dear friend? Why was it all warm fuzzy vibes and comaraderie and stress-free? It felt like the twilight zone. Or a Poe short story. As if I had just murdered someone, and they didn’t know and were treating me wonderfully and it was driving me insane. I came home, happy, basking in the glow of the sweet person they believed I was. I was simultaneously crestfallen. I suck at being a manipulative, selfish, angry, entitled bitch, apparently.

It was about a week later when someone retweeted a blog post written by a Norwegian woman, completely coincidentally but like a rope thrown to me by the God I’d been cursing up one side and down the other, about being “borderlined” and not believed by her doctor when reporting abuse, about how in her experience, the mental health system she had entered seeking help had caused her more harm than good. It wasn’t a “Ha!” moment of vindication. I simply felt every muscle in my body relax for the first time in a week. My stomach settled and I just stopped freaking out. I felt the a calm sense of sanity. A sanity that I only experience when I do not discount myself. It wasn’t an “I’m right and he was wrong” pep talk. It didn’t matter who was right and wrong so much as it mattered that I give my own experience of reality some fucking credit. Because who else would?

There are a lot of times I do not feel sane. But that insanity seems to stem from a phenomenological disconnect between my experience of the world and the official narrative. So much of the work focused on in treatment is about changing one’s own way of seeing the world so that it fits more seamlessly into the official narrative, thereby reducing one’s suffering, and isn’t that what you want? Not to suffer inconsolable sadness or paralyzing fear? It is. But I soon came to realize the only thing that worked for me to feel sane was successfully making sense of my experiences, precisely the opposite of what I was encouraged to do in traditional treatment. I failed in traditional treatment because, despite the psychologist’s report, I have a visceral aversion to performing a charade for personal benefit. The question I repeated in therapy was, “But what if we just create the expectation that people should be empathetic and accommodating toward those who suffer, try to understand them, rather than demand they pretend not to be suffering for the convenience of others?” I adopted a multi-pronged approach: Give me the bravery to do what I can, the expectation of support for the things I cannot, and the wisdom not to give a shit about the rest.

I could appeal this report. I need to for money and healthcare. And on principle. I cannot just sit back and allow such slanderous things to be said about me. I have my pride. But I am also not returning to the mental health system anytime soon. Sure maybe this time it would be better. Now that I know what to say and not to say. And I do need the financial security.

That’s why my mother stayed with my father.

One thing abusers and mental health professionals both do, with possibly very different intentions, is they both tell you that you have no insight into your own situation. They make you question your own interpretation of events, your own response to mistreatment, your own culpability in your suffering. But they provide a safety net. And there are good times. So long as you do what you are told, don’t go off thinking for yourself, it can feel downright lucky. And lastly, chances are you came running to them in an already vulnerable position. Groomed, even…

People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality.

It’s what makes a person human. It is what was carefully and cruelly stripped from people who have lived in situations of traumatic abuse and injustice. It’s why we have African American History month and gay pride parades and a First Nations tv station. Because the official narrative, like the one you will find online if you google “Borderline” and probably many other DSM diagnoses, has a phenomenally poor record of accurately portraying the experiences of reality of those who do not fit comfortably within the status quo. If you want to turn crazy cutter girls into functioning members of society, or simply want to support them, this should be the very first thing you do. Respect their fucking history and the reality of their experiences. You don’t have to like it, endorse it, enjoy it or even care about it. But you don’t get to deny them it. We don’t negotiate with countries who deny the Holocaust. Because why the fuck would you do that unless you didn’t think it was that bigga deal? And people who don’t think it was that bigga deal scare the shit out of us. People who deny the stories of women (and men) who have experienced severe childhood abuse – not daddy didn’t love me enough, but daddy whipped me with a leather belt until I could not move and then had sex with me and this happened a lot during my whole childhood abuse – I don’t negotiate with such people. They scare the shit out of me. Because what kind of sick fuck doesn’t think such an experience is that bigga deal? What kind of system not only doesn’t think it’s that bigga deal but actively tries to discredit the victims of such experiences? These are institutions we are putting in charge of people’s psychological well-being. There has to be a better way.

My therapist told me not to kill myself because he thought I could change the world. I cannot even change my own insurance provider’s decision. But on the off chance anyone who needs to read this is: People who have survived or been victims of, or however you want to frame it, people who have experienced this kind of severe abuse, they are entitled to the dignity of their own experiences of reality. Period.

If you are having a positive, accepting experience with the mental health system, that is great news, and I do not encourage people who use the system to stop just because I had a shitty experience. I only encourage people seeking support to do what they have to do, often in the face of less than ideal options. I don’t judge. But be aware that this could happen, and don’t internalize it if it does. If it has already happened to you, do you want to start a revolution or something? I’m quite serious. What’s the saying?

Well behaved women rarely make history.

Oh, the report also said I was
“Goal-oriented.”

Thank you for reading – It means a lot. Comments are off, but readers are welcome to contact me through my contact page, etc.

July 17, 2013

A Manifesto.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 7:13 PM
Tags: , , , , , ,

Because I’m Not Going Back to Pretending Shit Isn’t Real.

I was in treatment for a year. My insurance company decided I no longer needed to be. My employer decided I wouldn’t? couldn’t? return. Bit miffed, all this decision-making on my behalf with no input from me, about my … LIFE. Seriously unempowering. “Oh, woe is me! Whatever shall I do…?” I wept to friends and loved ones. “Get a lawyer. And write.” Lawyer’s been gotten.

And I am writing a manifesto.

I’d rather be writing about this vase of sunflowers and rustic blue and white hand painted sugar bowl and cup of velvety Cuban espresso on the table before me as the late morning sun gently reflects off the trees which line the street outside and from an old CD player Joni Mitchell coyly pleads for me to help her because she’s falling in love. Or maybe some bullshit about Actually Existing Democracy. I mean to be honest, I’d rather be independently wealthy and lying on a terrace in Nice with Vladislav Surkov refilling my glass. But that’s not the hand I got dealt this game.

Alas, circumstances have forced me into this corner from which I have to manifesto-write may way out. One such circumstance being that manifesto writing is fun. And we’re taught to turn our anger into something fun, aren’t we kids? Another circumstance is that I have been positively inundated with the most inane, uninformed, condescending and generally unhelpfully-framed inquiries and commentaries regarding my mental welfare that it seems to me there exists a gaping hole where basic fucking common sense should be, and I aim to rectify that! By doing so I can hopefully encourage the countless numbers of individuals who have met the same challenges as I in their journey through life and inform those whose lives they touch, replacing confusion and hurt with peace and acceptance. Or I can at least print this out and carry copies around with me for whenever someone says something moronic to me. I can just hand them out. Not on street corners. Unless that’s where I end up working, and I am at my job one day and someone is all like,

“WELL, YOU LOOK GREAT. EVERY TIME I SEE YOU, YOU LOOK FINE. I GUESS THAT’S WHAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

Reality check – people don’t understand you either, and you’re in denial if you think they do. And you may also be in denial if you go through life certain you understand everyone, because everyone else’s life mostly takes place outside of your experience of them. It may be that on the spectrum of inexplicable human behaviour, I’m further, much further toward the end than you. But not understanding people is the magic goo that holds us all together, makes economies fail and men go to war and people look at their own children as if they were alien spawn. I am by no means upset that someone, anyone, would want to understand me. It’s flattering and a universal facet of love. But love, acceptance, empathy or even just treating another with the same dignity that you would expect from them should never be contingent upon true understanding. Most people don’t even understand themselves half the time. I’m not arguing against understanding (it is the motivation for this manifesto, obviously) but against the assumption that it is incumbent upon people to be understood before they may be accepted, and any failure to understand another human being must mean they’re doing it wrong. Of course, no one is obliged to accept, love, like, empathize with, support, be nice to me. Likewise I am in no way obliged to have to prove my suffering to those who wish to not believe in it. No. I am not.

But let’s accept your insistence that I am obligated (money, insurance, human acceptance demand it!)

What would that look like?

Does post traumatic stress look like a army veteran? Does melancholia look like a palid unkempt middle aged woman in a Big Pharma commercial? Are we talking about Halloween costumes or human suffering that does not discriminate along gender, professional, ethnic, age or where you shop at lines? No, you didn’t mean look, as in how I was dressed, but how I seemed. Based on my behavior. I’m not acting depressed at this dinner party, right?

The very – and I cannot ever possibly ever in my whole fucking life if I lived ten of them stress this enough – very unfortunate fact is that people who behave suicidally are accused of doing so for attention right up until the very day they are successful.

Then they are a tragedy, a tortured soul and all the bullshit you want to heap on them to make it easier for YOU to sleep at night. The suicidal human being is not said to be ill until an autopsy can be performed. After all, if you haven’t actually pulled the trigger – how do we know you aren’t just feigning distress for attention? Again with the understanding. For my part, several stints in psych wards, arms covered in faded razor wounds, chain smoking, not eating, all that might look sexy to you. I pull it off well. But I honestly and truly do not know how to show you this pain. Show me your headache. Don’t just tell me your head is throbbing and you want to lie down and a pill will help and can I please be quiet. PROVE to me you have a headache. If your response to such an insensitive demand is, “Fuck you,” I’d understand. Because I probably just made it worse by saying that.

I could invite you over late at night when I am sprawled on the bathroom floor, face swollen from hysterical sobbing, hair like Medusa, mascara and snot everywhere, as I yell at God and plead with my dead mother and frantically search for old bottles of potentially lethal pills. But I’d prefer to maintain ownership of what dignity I have managed to salvage for myself over the years. I am not a freakshow attraction. I don’t have to turn my life into a reality TV show to prove anything, to earn the right to stay on this island. I think it would be incredibly helpful if we could collectively discard the notion that once someone comes forward with a mental illness, emotional distress or existential torment and asks for help, all their behavior belongs to us. We are not case studies or specimens or even exhibit A of whatever Zeitgeist you are promoting. We are people, who really didn’t ask for this, but have it and need some dignity to thrive. On the other hand, suffering in silence is not for everyone either. Ultimately, the more control we have over who is entitled to bear witness to how much of our suffering should be a personal decision. The point is, not seeing something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If someone has trusted you to witness their suffering, or has been forced by systems to illustrate it for you, which are both frankly humiliating experiences, that person’s behavior is only going to “improve” if you recognize the act of courage for what it is rather than flippantly thanking them for the day at the theater. No one is suffering for your entertainment.

Not believing a survivor of incest and childhood abuse that their adult suffering is real also just makes it worse. Because you are certainly not the first person who did not believe them about something serious. You can say and know in your heart that these are separate issues, that you’ve had nothing to do with someone else’s prior experiences. It’s unfair all around, because that’s true. Yet, while it is true that the third concussion a person experiences may have absolutely no connection to the previous ones, it still has the effect of creating a cumulative injury, of damaging what has already been damaged. Trauma is cumulative.

I am youthful looking for my age, I am told, by people who don’t look at my teeth, neck or ass. I can dye my grey hair and use moisturizers and reflective powders to conceal dark circles and fine lines. I’m intelligent according to standardized tests and the opinions of people I admire. Because of my life I have had to be resourceful and a little fierce to survive. I’ve had to develop a sense of humour as well. About a month ago a friend came to pick me up, and as I got into her car, she looked at me and marvelled. “What?” “Nothing…” “What, you just gave me a weird look.” “It never fails to impress me that your makeup is perfect even when you are in crisis.” “Well you know I am in crisis and I know I am in crisis, but I don’t see how it is the business of any stranger on the street.”

Perhaps there is an element of resistance to my downright perverse need to always look ok. Don’t let the bastards get you down, as they say. Or perhaps it is simply one thing I feel like I do have control over. Perhaps it is a kind of warrior paint, armor. Or a rebellion against stigma. Or a need to not let on – if I look like everything is ok, everything will be ok. But mostly it is automatic, something I give no thought to. It’s so deeply ingrained in my being that even when I try to not make an effort I still come off as put together. I spent the first 21 years of my life cultivating the ability to not show anything was wrong, to present myself as … perfect. Straight A’s, perfect hair, well-dressed, well-mannered, well-spoken. Sure I would simply disappear a lot. But when in the company of others, I tried to be perfection. A day that passed without a compliment I considered a failure. Not because I wanted the attention – I was a painfully shy child. My therapist says it was to mask the reality of my homelife, and that is true. I would have died, I just knew it, if any of the kids at school knew. But also, at least consciously, I wanted to transcend … all of it. Trying to exist on some plane of untouchables, out of reach from cruelty or judgement. As if, if I did everything perfectly enough, a magical fortress would appear and protect me. I was young. Of course now, when I meet such perfect people my first and really only reaction to them is, “Oh dear. What are they hiding? They’re absolutely miserable.” I want to tell them they’ll just get hurt anyway, so may as well relax a bit and stop caring what others thought. There is no magical fortress.

And even if I could change my routine so many decades later, why? Because some asshole doctor says I don’t look depressed? Pride. Look, just because I can identify maladaptive behavior or magical thinking doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to become a hippie. A hippie wasn’t something I was going to be except my father did these things, except I have a family history of being predisposed to some dark shit. Plus, the only thing I do know is that I am going to die. And no one knows when. But it seems like an occasion worth dressing up for.

Some … all people hear this and conclude that I am somehow “fake.” I’m really not. I really am a pretty straightforward person who wont mince words. I publicly, in appearances, especially around people I do not intimately know and trust, try to present my best self. Not someone else’s best self. Mine. I take credit for nothing that I don’t deserve credit for. Granted no one is one hundred percent perfect, but no one is one hundred percent a trainwreck. Again, why do people not know this? I should have thought it were fact. Yet, people who make up those idiot disability questionnaires seem to not have received the memo:

A PERSON CAN BE AN EMOTIONAL TRAINWRECK SOMETIMES AND NOT AT OTHER TIMES.

However, I do wish it were easier for me to show my more vulnerable side. This is why I write. I can do that in writing. Words are my magical fortress.

“BUT HOW CAN WE KNOW YOU ARE NOT LYING? HOW DO WE KNOW YOU ARE NOT JUST MAKING THIS UP FOR ATTENTION? OR MONEY? OR WHATEVER?”

You don’t. You can read this. You can judge for yourself whether or not events and genetics are capable of impacting a person’s ability to function optimally, if it makes sense or is squarely within the realm of possibility that prolonged, terrifying childhood experiences combined with a family history of misery and dysfunction might result in a hyperactive fear response, crippling anxiety and an impaired capacity for trust and optimism. You can decide for yourself if that’s something you would be so nonchalant about your own daughter being on the receiving end of. But you are neither judge nor jury for the validity and reality of my moments of suffering, and even if you were, until you were able to crawl into my head and experience existence from that perspective, you still could not know. I may even get philosophical and argue that a person cannot ever know their true self, or ask if truth actually exists. I may even ask,

WHAT HAS THE WORLD DONE TO YOU TO MAKE YOU GO THROUGH LIFE DISMISSIVE OF THE SUFFERING OF OTHERS, AND IS WHATEVER HAPPENED TO YOU THAT MADE YOU THIS HARDENED ALSO WHY YOU REACT SO NEGATIVELY TO THE POSSIBILITY OF OTHERS RECEIVING “SPECIAL TREATMENT,” AND IF SO WHY NOT LET’S THEN SUPPORT EACH OTHER INSTEAD OF TURNING THIS INTO A GODDAMNED TRAGEDY COMPETITION? BECAUSE WHEN YOU TELL ME I CANNOT GO THROUGH LIFE BEING BITTER, I CANNOT HELP BUT NOTICE THE VERY POIGNANT BITTERNESS IN YOUR OWN VOICE.

“OK. CALM DOWN. I SEE YOUR POINT. I BELIEVE THESE THINGS HAPPENED TO YOU, I DO. BUT WOULDN’T IT BE BETTER IF YOU COULD JUST DECIDE TO MOVE ON RATHER THAN LIVING IN THE PAST?”

Thanks, that’s probably far more inane and condescending sounding than you intended it to be. I know you are just trying to help. Why the assumption that I am living in the past? Those close to me, those who actually know me will, I think, eagerly attest to the fact that I am very much capable of living in the present and in fact, am quite good at it too. Just recently a friend and I were on a Ferris wheel, and he asked to take my picture. I made him put away the camera and gave him a lecture about living in the moment. “How will I remember this?” he asked. I made sure he remembered. I will challenge anyone right here and now to a living in the present duel. I can out live every day like it is your last every one of you. Because I am usually convinced it is. No, my weakness is not that I am stuck living in the past. It’s that I can’t live in the future. I have no future box in my brain. It’s a blank, black wall with no door or window. It’s always been this way. It feels like a kind of autism. Maybe I never had a chance to develop those muscles. Maybe I wasn’t born with them, like a person born without knee caps. I have no idea, and no professional I have spoken to has a cure. I recently confessed this to my sibling, who in turn confessed to me he understood all to well. You see, I am in fact tense-challenged. It’s just the tense you’ve presumed before asking. Fascinating, no? Also, a funny thing about it is that, as with any handicap or injury, willpower is necessary to cope with it, but it is not in fact curative. No it isn’t. Angels can’t cure you either. I’m sorry. Weren’t you the one who was demanding observable, quantifiable and reproducible evidence just a moment ago?

I understand that there are people who would like me to move on. “My God, she is still talking about her child molester father and dead mother…,” you must mutter under your breath. It is slightly stupid really to say so as if I had not in fact thought of that, or actively attempted to do it, given the profoundly unfun nature of my past. Look, I am not the pervy sicko here. That’s my father, and if you are sick of hearing about pervy sicko things, take it up with him. But I have some very, very bad news for you – I plan on talking about it for a very, very long time. This wish for me to move on often sounds not so much like empathy and encouragement but like a request to have the station changed – for you, not for me. Of course I would like to move on and get over the chronic insomnia, vivid nightmares, the waking up in a panic attack, the inability to trust, the wish to check out permanently because nothing here stops the pain, the acute grief that feels like an infected tattoo on my soul.

I DO NOT LIKE THESE THINGS. THEY MAKE LIFE VERY DIFFICULT. YOU CAN IMAGINE.

There are truly a limited number of things I will not try to get over these demons. It was the effects of trauma, not my actual life story you wanted me to get over, correct? Never mind. Oh yes, well, I would not inflict suffering on another with the purpose of minimizing my own. I wouldn’t buy K-pins under the Wilson el stop. I wouldn’t … My point is that I will try a lot of things to rid myself of the bullshit pain and inconveniences of psychic injury. And – you may find this incredibly interesting – the very first thing I tried was pretending it wasn’t real and things had not happened to me. Move on. Never give it another thought. Get over it. Start a new life, away from home, full of promise, focus all my energies on academics and arts and undergraduate intrigues. Crazy, you were just suggesting I do that, and it turns out I did it 20 years ago! I have always been a bit avant garde… So right, I moved on. Weirdly, I still ended up in this situation where my friends were calling my parents worried and my parents were calling the university shrink worried and I wasn’t calling anyone because all I wanted was to disappear. So, FAIL, amirite? Still not sure what I did wrong. I kept trying to do it too. But like clockwork, every time I would pretend all was well, my life was not real, every time I would make an effort not to think about things, to go through the motions of what was expected of me, I got even more depressed! What is up with that? And then of course I would feel like a failure because of my inability to move on and get over things, and that would make me even more suicidal! Oh, it was a mess. Gosh. Yeah, so I am like, maybe that doesn’t work. Maybe you should not even be encouraging me to do that again. Also, shit, I don’t tell you how to live your life.

No. You have stuck with this manifesto thus far, and you deserve a straightforward explanation, not sarcasm and snark. That is not helpful.

Oh come on. I have anxiety issues, not obsessive personality disorder. It is not as if I don’t talk about other things. Note that most of this blog is devoted to entirely other things. I don’t go to dinner parties and talk about my father or wanting to die. (Maybe this is why I get a lot of “But you seem fine…” at dinner parties.) I am a woman of many interests and pastimes. I do genealogy, read voraciously, go to museums and theater, do yoga and ballet, get acupuncture, work on political campaigns, ride motorcycles, write about Russian politics. I am a reliable friend to people I adore, a feisty and unapologetic feminist, and a devoted cat mother. I can out drink, cook, converse, hike and write most of you. I am obsessed with all things Russian, Jazz Age and Chicago. I can get anywhere on public transportation. Animals love me. I have been painted by a famous artist, interrogated by uzi-weilding men in Sheremetevo airport and sent love letters from Paris. I am hardly one long lament about childhood sexual abuse or a monotonous melancholic or crisis manufacturing plant. So stop insinuating that I am boring, a broken record, a one trick pony. Stop it.

And I am not going to shut up about my past and its consequences. “Shut up” is not the message we need to respond with when people muster the courage to openly talk about the sexual, physical or emotional harm inflicted upon them. If that is your reaction to these matters, you are an asshole. Even if you say “move on” when you mean “shut up.” You move on past your discomfort with people bearing witness to their own experiences. I’m sorry if that offends you. Get over it.

“WE ARE NOT SAYING YOU SHOULD SHUT UP ABOUT IT. JUST THAT YOU COULD GET SOME EMOTIONAL RELIEF FROM NOT DWELLING UPON THE PAST. DON’T LET IT GET TO YOU, OVERWHELM YOU. IT IS POSSIBLE. I KNOW PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN THROUGH WORSE AND WHO MANAGED TO RECOVER.”

Well, in fairness, you can no more know they have recovered than you can know I have real debilitating suffering. You are largely dependent on their self-reporting and ability to conform to societal expectations. Which is not to say some people have not been through worse than me and are pretty happy and normal regardless. Just that one must be careful and in possession of all the facts before assuming an air of smug certainty. But why do some people recover and some people do not? Why do some soldiers come home messed and some do not? Why do some people respond to chemotherapy and some do not? Why is it that you can make the exact same recipe twice and have the results come out quite differently? These are questions we simply do not know the answers to. Or I do not, at any rate. The going theory is that a combination of social support, genetic predisposition and comorbid illness and/or stressful life events play a part in determining one’s prognosis. I do not know. I do know that the comparison to highly successful people is a wee bit cruel, like a parent who points to the high school quarterback and valedictorian and demands of their son, “Why can’t you be more like him?” Perhaps he has to be who he is meant to be, and that is not who he is meant to be. Perhaps math is impossible for him and makes him cry, and he is very proud for the B’s on his report card he busted his ass for. Perhaps projecting expectations upon another person is less helpful than giving them the skills and resources they need to meet heir own expectations. I am grateful for high expectations. No one wants to feel given up on. But I wonder why people choose to see what I have yet to accomplish rather than what I have accomplished. I am alive, when many people who have experienced similar things are not. I have no addictions, unwanted pregnancies, abusive relationships, or criminal record. I have a degree from a top ranked university, amazing friends, most importantly, solid self-esteem and a strong moral compass. I am doing something right in spite of the hand I was dealt. Please do not underestimate the difficulty of that. Maybe it is easier for others. But like the kid who is bad at math, I have busted my ass. So any insinuation that I lack willpower and determination is misinformed at best and insulting at worst.

As for dwelling on things and letting them get to me, I am afraid I’ve already been gotten to. Basic childhood development stuff. So I am focused on coping with what I’ve got, and perhaps even doing something constructive with it. Like educating others about how not to talk to your messed up loved ones and acquaintances. Like bucking the taboo on incest and childhood abuse (I’m not speaking of abuse as it used in its more liberal contexts, but the kind of locking up and raping of a five year old which we can all agree consitutes abuse) and talking about, writing about it, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Because it is precisely not talking about it that allows it to go on for years. And it has real consequences beyond unpleasant memories. And I think people should know that. It seems like an important thing to make sure people know. Because people look at my life and at me and say, “But you are so intelligent and strong, I guess I just don’t understand.” Because I’m trying to help them understand.

“OK. WE JUST WANTED TO HELP. WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO HELP YOU. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US?”

Acceptance. For who I am right now, not what you wish I were. Of the fact that I did not create my suffering, and that it is real.

Acknowledgement. Of my hurdles and accomplishments, not piteous sympathy and comments on my potential. Of my own agency to decide for myself what I need and to know for myself what I want.

People to listen. To not only me but anyone who speaks of their own psychological trauma, cognitive challenges or emotional distress openly and honestly. To those who are far far too used to people not listening.

Of course no one is obligated to me. But I am relatively confident that for every single person who reads this, there is at least one person in their life to whom they are and for whom it would make a productive, meaningful and possibly radical difference. Do not rely on mental health professionals to do this for you. If someone you know is in distress, they need more time and attention and patience than any doctor in our system is able to provide them. Do not rely on a person to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. People like me can get pretty MacGyver at rigging up some straps for our non-existent boots. But duct tape is no substitute for knowing you are loved despite your lack of proper boots.

Thanks for reading. I don’t usually say so, but please share.

July 16, 2013

The Longest Day

Filed under: Chicago,Too Much Information — poemless @ 7:15 PM

“Let me know if you wanna grab a drink or seven this weekend.”

Who knows where the morning went. Suffocated in its sleep by oppressive temperatures and humidity or washed down the gutter by intermittent deluges that kept breaking the heat and putting it back together again. Like me with my life. Since I’d been off work, I’d taken my waking slow, filling the am hours with an easy journey into consciousness. I awoke at dawn, when a giant black cat sat on my pillow whispering all the ways he could kill me in my sleep until I arose to feed him. I made coffee in a French press. I read trendy lit magazines. I did yoga and ballet. I wrote. I re-wrote. I stood with the fridge open until overcome by lightheadedness. I forced something down my gullet. I showered around 2pm. A life of leisure? Perhaps… But I required from this world, in return for not hanging myself, a daily quota of leisure and sanity. I’d recently transitioned from being off work to being out of work, out of health insurance, out of money and out of luck. I was in no position to part with what quality of life I had left. Institutions seemed no more enamored with my existence than I with theirs, so why devote every hour of my precious day to garnering their approval? If they wanted a trial separation, I was happy to oblige. It was the same with institutions and men. I had expectations of being treated with a modicum of dignity and believed myself worth fighting for, but if they found me expendable, I wasn’t going to grovel. Only a dog can thrive in an environment where it has to beg.

My ability to maintain an attitude of graceful disaffection meant I still had pride left to insult when my bank card was hacked and my transit pass stolen, after having lost my income. The latter was replaced without ado. Such accommodation from a bureaucracy renown for its incompetence and casual hostility reinforced my belief that something was celestially out of alignment. It was the Summer Solstice. I’ve never been a pagan, but I can recognize a formidable opponent. I couldn’t get another human to return my calls; whatever was going on out there had the power to determine the rhythm of oceans and length of days. I decided to ride out the cosmic chaos until the universe figured out how to keep itself sane too. Until then, just leaving my apartment felt like choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if simply staying alive meant looking for trouble, I thought I may as well make it interesting trouble. Anyway, I had no caution left for throwing to the wind. And that’s why I’d accepted the offer of a drink, or seven.

The plan had been to meet up in Jefferson Park after I’d had my energy properly rearranged at an acupuncture clinic in Logan Square. But late afternoon thunderstorms and customer service reps at the bank kept me in till nearly 5pm. There was also a cat I was being paid to care for who had the good sense to live en route to the bar. Unlike the radical health collective. My friend was already on his to Fischman’s Liquors after a long day of his own. Now that I thought of it, I’d never met this person for drinks before. Friend? Acquaintance. He’d invited me out and offered to treat, presumably because my life was in pieces and I had no money, or no money I could actually access without a damn ATM card. Presumably. Why wouldn’t I presume that? This question became serious as I contemplated the contents of my closet. This is what people do when someone hits a rough patch – invite them for a bit of conversation and distraction, raise glasses and spirits. Perfectly normal. Except the last time a fellow arranged to meet me at a dive bar for moral support, a nude sketch of me ended up in a local literary magazine.

I looked out the window at the ominous sky, at my phone for a missed call from the bank, at the clock for confirmation of the late hour despite the high sun emerging from the clouds. I threw on a blouse and corduroys and sandals and a scarf. Underneath that, something more trouble appropriate. After all, you never know when you’ll be in a car accident. Or man accident. With my recent string of luck, I left my apartment prepared for both.

After a cat-sitting detour, I headed for the westbound Lawrence bus. Next to the bus stop, a drunk hobo had taken keen interest in a street sign that had fallen over, blocking the sidewalk. “Imagine if that had fallen over on you. Look at it, it would have killed you, and no one would even care, because this is the ghetto, they don’t give a fuck about us here. That could have fallen on you and killed you and no one would even fucking care,” he kept repeating. He probably thought I was being polite when I nodded my head in agreement and contemplated the street sign-as-guillotine phenomenon, or perhaps my eyes gave away the sincerity of my concern. I smoked nervously as I waited for the bus. Anything can kill you. At the same time, knowledge that I had evaded the murderous rage of this street-sign filled me with a sense of invincibility.

There’s nothing much more exhilarating than Lawrence Avenue on a steamy summer Friday night. The rain was gone, and the heat had been put back together. The east-west street flooded with the glow of sunset each evening, blinding those foolish enough resist the lure of the beautiful lakefront. The post-rain haze added another layer of texture to the already gritty atmosphere. On Lawrence on a summer Friday night, out west of Western, everyone is outside, everyone is from somewhere else, everyone is living their own interstitial lives, refusing to be sapped of vitality, invincible, electric. The street is lined with food stands, ice cream carts, people selling mangoes by the box out of the backs of trucks. The stores have names like “Sexy Girls of The Hollywood.” Young men cruise by in low-riders while teenage girls gather outside convenience stores, striking tough poses in bejeweled nails and severe hairstyles and Hello Kitty backpacks with their boyfriends’ names markered all over them. The same magic marker is used on the day-glow poster-board signs plastering shop windows. Small children run to keep up with serious grandmothers not much taller than they are. Men stop to tell passing women how beautiful they are. Buses and bikes and cars and pedestrians vie for each spare foot of space as they make their way down the avenue. I once saw a car stop at a red light, windows down, stereo cranked up and everyone on the sidewalk spontaneously broke out dancing to “All Night Long.” Just like in the music video.

At least that’s the Lawrence Avenue I knew. I could be foolish, but not foolish enough to stray too far from the lake for fear of being sucked back into the vast emptiness of the great plains, whose existence I’d escaped at the age of 18 and still feared as I looked west down the city avenues that grew flatter, emptier and more harshly lit by the summer sun as they reached the hazy horizon. I’m the kind of girl who can get claustrophobic in wide open spaces and places I can’t catch a cab or bus home from. Like a penguin who carries its egg nestled between its legs, protecting and transporting it, ensuring it is never left alone, the city gives me a sense of security. I am hesitant to jump into the frozen sea of suburbia.

But like those who braved the cruel conditions of the West in search of opportunity, I was buoyed by the possibility of adventure as the bus left the inner-city and entered the land that time forgot lining the city limits. The streets all turned to K’s, buildings from brown brick to blonde, signs from Spanish and Serbo-Croatian to Korean and Polish. Traffic gave way to small, fissured parking lots. The aesthetic out here was like a mausoleum to the American 1950’s. Safe. Boring. Overwhelmingly white and working class. People liked to call this the “real” Chicago. People with art school or journalism degrees who could only afford to slum it anyway, and why not with another species on the brink of extinction? Who was I to judge… Wasn’t I doing the same thing? Still, for the “real” Chicago, this place was growingi ncreasingly quieter as the weekend began. There were few people outside. Few places to even gather outside. What kind of city keeps its authenticity hidden behind the front doors of single family homes?

Upon reaching Milwaukee Avenue, the bus did not stop, but veered into a depot, as if even the hardened employees of the Chicago Transportation Authority were unwilling to go any further. As I exited, I half expected the driver to shake my hand, thank me for the company and wish me luck on the next leg of my trip. I picked up my rucksack and headed on foot to Fischman’s. It hadn’t rained for a few hours, but the air was as wet as ever. The sun blazed as it neared 9pm.

A dive bar on a sultry evening feels like a womb. The buffer of darkness, the lazy churn of ceiling fans, the muted tones in which patrons sprinkled along the counter make half-attempts to socialize, the way the world outside stays outside when you step in. I quite like such easy establishments. Even more, I like the kind of fellow who asks me to meet him at such a clandestine locale. Tonight it was a political staffer, a longtime acquaintance. I scanned the room as my eyes adjusted to the light. He sat opposite the door in shirtsleeves, forehead in hand and nose in a book on constitutional clauses, nursing a snifter of something the same color as the wood paneling. A real Josh Lyman type who probably would have been just as at home in DC as in the Chicago hinterlands. But he’d taken a job with one of the “rebel” Aldermen who was part of an emerging bloc of reformers openly challenging the Mayor. The old Machine was effectively dead, but the current leadership’s bank account held just as much power as the old Party organization. Only instead of ripping up private airport landing strips, they were ripping up public schools. In a ward populated with city workers, it was now politically viable to oppose a mayor who was openly hostile to anything public or anyone who had to actually work for a living. Chicago politics had always been interesting, but there was a growing sense that it could also be participatory, dynamic. It was an exciting time, at least out here in the “real” Chicago. He’d also studied theater and named his cat after Gertrude Stein. A girl like me could do worse than spending a Friday night with a fellow like that in a place like this.

He stood up and gave me a bracing hug, and I slunk into a wobbly bar stool. Dive bars stock up on beer and whiskey, neither of which I know how to drink seven of, but Ricochet’s kept some not too shabby box wine on the back bar, and the Rainbo a bottle of red table wine under the counter for when boys like that drag girls like me in. Fischman’s had no wine. Apparently it’s uncommon for girls like me to get dragged here. The constitutional scholar tried to impress me with a sample of a local gin. We both agreed that we’d never been big gin drinkers, but that our tastes had matured with age and we could appreciate the botanicals now. “The botanicals,” we smugly agreed, as we took a sniff and then a sip. We agreed it still tasted like medicine. Botanical medicine.

“Do you have vodka here?” I inquired hesitantly of the barman.
“It’s a bar. Do you know a bar that doesn’t?” he got socratic with me. Well, no I didn’t, but I was confident the universe of possibilities transcended my personal knowledge. Did he know anyone almosted killed by a street sign?
“What kind?”
“All the kinds. What you you want?” I listed off three different kinds before the bartender confessed to having only one.
“Do you know how to make a martini?” I asked. The bartender looked at my friend as if to ask if he wanted him to kill me. “I’d like a vodka martini straight up dry with olives,” I rattled off. “Can you make that?” My friend laughed. “What?” I shot him a defensive look.
“No, I like it. You know what you want.”
The bartender gingerly, with real fear on his face now, sat a champagne coupe on the counter. I shook my head. Those were for people unemployed by choice or living under Prohibition. “Or, I can go down to the basement and get a martini glass. Would you like that?”
“Do you think you could?”

This is why I am afraid of being sucked into the bizarre world that lies outside densely populated urban areas: routine human expectations suddenly become exhibit A and poof, you’re convicted of High Maintenance Personality crimes. But once the martini actually appeared before me, I had no more complaints. I even felt bad for insinuating the bartender could not make one when the truth was he was just short of supplies. Pioneer life…

“I should warn you, there are only three subjects I enjoy talking about,” my acquaintance leaned in and confided as we headed out for our first cigarette.

We spent the evening steeped in effortless, friendly discussions of sex, religion and politics, as well as condo law, theater school, benzos, motorcycles, urban husbandry, psychoanalysis and feline epilepsy. I was having a swimmingly fabulous time and not simply because I had my head in a martini glass. He was buying. “Unless that makes you uncomfortable.” It had been the caveat, not the offer, that made me uncomfortable. We stayed long enough to watch the clientele change from blue-collar men stalling before heading home after work to young hipsters taking advantage of low rent libations, and back to the “real Chicago” guys who either never made it home or waited until their wives were asleep to make their escape. From day drinkers to connoisseurs to last hurrahs. I’d happily agreed to a second martini and was unready to go home when it came time for a third. Around 1:30am I emerged from the girl’s room to find my companion in a James Dean pose in front of the jukebox. The Violent Femmes were playing, and a fresh martini sat on the counter in front of my seat. I had left home expecting trouble and here it was.

The lights came on, I asked the bartender not to let the rest of my drink go to waste and we tumbled outside where we smoked our last cigarettes. My friend pointed to a bench by the Milwaukee bus stop that had been installed to face inward, toward the building behind it. “It’s brilliant,” I proclaimed. I imagined a whole city of people literally turning their backs on social expectations. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see the bus arrive, it doesn’t matter if you miss it, the world will continue to turn in exactly the same way. I thought maybe it was supposed to be art. Or a terrible mistake the ward lacked funds to rectify. He explained that it had been his boss’s idea, to encourage people to socialize. “See?” He sat, no, leaned, on the sloped ledge of the building facing the bus bench. We silently faced each other on opposite sides of the deserted sidewalk in a deserted part of town at a deserted hour of night, as if preparing for a duel or something equally as dangerous. They’d only get away with this out here, I thought, just like they’d only get away with lethal street signs in the ghetto. No one fucking cares about this bench. It’s the tragedy of freedom.

We crossed the street, and I waited outside the all night convenience store while my friend replenished our cigarette supply. He re-emerged, cigarettes in shirt pocket, leaned against the neon-lit storefront. “What’s a girl like you doing in place like this?”
“Standing on a street corner in the middle of the night? A girl’s gotta make a living.”
“This isn’t the street corner. That’s the street corner,” he pointed to the sign a few feet away.
“I’d make a terrible prostitute…” I was only half-joking. I literally did not know where mynext meal was coming from.
“There, there. I think you’d make a fine prostitute.” He led us up Milwaukee Avenue.
“Wait. Where are we going? The bus stop is back there.” I pointed toward Lawrence. “And where are you going?”
“Home. That bus won’t come for another half hour at least.” That bus drove past. I looked at him, incredulous. “Where do you even live?” He used to live in my neighborhood, out east, in civilization, before a marriage and a divorce had created multiple dislocations.
“Now there won’t be another bus for a half hour.” He gave his address as Northwest Highway and a street I recognized as the last one before the city’s hardscrabble west side gave over to a posh suburb. In fact I only knew of it because when staying with friends in said posh suburb it was the street we were instructed, repeatedly, to avoid. Posh and nervous, that is.
“I don’t believe you. I take the Lawrence bus home all the time later than this. There is a ‘Northwest Highway?’” I’d never heard of a Northwest Highway, and I’d lived here a long time. Sounded made up to me. Like a cartoon name.
“It goes all the way out to Yellowstone National Park!” he elaborated with bourbon-infused exuberance.
“How am I getting home?” National parks are great for bears. I probably could have devoured a man alive in the mood I was in, but I was not an actual bear.
“You have three options. You can wait another half hour for the bus. … Or you can come home with me,” he explained as we casually walked toward a cab. The second option was the only moment of the evening I have no memory of.
“What would you prefer?” I threw the ball back in his court and he ran off with it. We got in the cab and headed toward the Northwest Highway.

A gentleman, he gave me a tour of his new apartment, introduced me to the epileptic cat, lent me his most comfortable t-shirt and an assembly-required toothbrush from a hotel in Romania. And he went to sleep on the couch. I stood brushing my teeth in a state of shock. I knew he was a fan of Beckett, but this was really a bit much.

I attempted to wake him, unsuccessfully, and proceeded to consider myself kidnapped. Of course. I became determined to go home, but I had no idea where I was and no money for a cab even if I could hunt down a piece of mail in the dark from which to secure an address. I smoked cigarettes on the back porch. I texted insomniacs and residents of the West Coast without response. Was he really the kind of fellow who would just go and kidnap a girl? Not at all. And yet up until that evening I’d been going through life blindly believing street signs were not homicidal maniacs. Obviously recent events shed doubt on my being a successful judge of character. I sat on the couch and explained to him why kidnapping a girl, even a girl in a rough patch, was no way to behave. It must have been one hell of a boring speech – he slept right through it. I stared out the window as the humid fog which hung under streetlights evolved into a soft drizzle, bored out of my wits. And claustrophobic. I didn’t sleep, not understanding why I couldn’t do that alone in my own bed. I waited until a sensible hour to begin hostilely, physically demanding coffee. I had to specify that I was demanding he make the coffee. I only know a French press. He arose, made some and returned to sleep.

As I sipped the coffee, I felt a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. I sat the mug on the bedside table and hung my head over the side of the bed. The epileptic cat was on the floor below. She desperately attempted to play with a stuffed toy I lamely dragged along the floor. She kept falling over. It was all the benzos she was on. She frantically buzzed my hand , pawed at the toy, then looked at me as if struck by a horrible memory, and fell over. She repeated this behavior until I was forced to look away, heartbroken. The room was spinning. I thought that if I could just focus on an object, preferably not one about to have a seizure, I would be ok. I rested my heavy eyes on the coffee mug, which I’d assumed to be from Starbucks: white with a green image inside a green circle, with print in green lettering above and below. I rested my head on the pillow and the words on the coffee mug came into focus:

YARBROUGH MORTUARY SERVICES

Oh.
Fuck.
I’m not just kidnapped, I’m dead already. My god, the Puritans who warn others about my libertine lifestyle choices were right. I scoffed that their conservative ways, and lo, I went to a bar, got drunk, went home with a man and now I am dead. Just like in a 1950’s detective drama. And no one cared. Just like the hobo had warned.

I lept up in a panic, suppressing the urge to vomit. I knew if I could get home I would be alive again. I threw on last night’s clothes, pausing to appreciate with regret my choice of lingerie, used the rough bristled Romanian toothbrush and woke up my friend? acquaintance? kidnapper? demanding to go home. He sat up, looked at his phone, looked at me and said there would be a bus at the end of the street in twenty minutes. The fact that he wore those boxer shorts well may have saved his life.
“A bus. And where does this bus go, precisely?” To Yellowstone National Park probably, I thought. I shook my head and gave him the same look the bartender got when he pulled out his champagne coupe. Buses were for people going home on a Friday night not a Saturday morning.
“Or, we could go get my car and drive you home. Would you like that?”
“Do you think we could?”

The journey to the car left back at his office required getting on the Northwest Highway bus, which I was convinced was going to transport me to Yellowstone National Park. In all honesty, I prefer a proper kidnapping over camping any day. The only thing worse than not sleeping in one’s own bed is being eaten by bears while not sleeping in one’s own bed. Annoyed by my declining the offer of bus fare, he asked if he’d said or done anything upsetting last night.
“You said all the signs were in Mexican. … Uhm, did I?” I asked, hoping to glean some insight into my abduction.
“No, no, you were perfectly charming.”
“Oh.” I scowled out the window. If I’d had telekinetic powers, the whole bus would have burst into flames.

We got off, somewhere, and walked down Milwaukee Avenue back toward Fischman’s, where the door was open and people were already inside. My stomach churned like the ceiling fans. A few doors down, we hopped in his car and headed east up Lawrence. The sun had dispersed the morning’s rain clouds, and the air was as heavy as ever. Strip malls and flat beige warehouses gave way to vibrant shops and restaurants, which gave way to chain stores, new construction and European cafes. Blinding sun to smog then to tree-lined streets. By the time I made it home it was already noon. I thanked him for the hangover and my release and darted into my apartment, free, tragic. The Begemot cat screamed at me for breakfast, then whispered a derogatory name for women who don’t come home at night as I walked past him into the bathroom. I showered around 2pm.

I knew perfectly well where the morning went. It was the night’s whereabouts that remained unaccounted for.

June 9, 2013

It’s Pretty Fucking Good, Actually.

Behold! In which write a post appealling to my lefty activist, bibliophile and Russophile readers all at once! I don’t even know who the rest of you are or what you want from me.

A while back, before May came trampling through my life like Renfield on meth, Keith Gessen of n+1 (“Uh. Is this Masha’s brother?” I asked friends) contacted me to promote a book he had recently published. Or edited. Or translated. Or something. He wanted to send me a copy of Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good. I said OK. For future reference, you don’t need to ask. Just put your brilliant books in the mail addressed to me, ok people? (I’m talking to you Dalkey Archive.) Shit folks do without even asking first, and you want to politely inquire if I would mind a free copy of your Russian activist’s poetry book? What the hell is wrong with people…?

I read it, devoured it, as if it were the sweat off a lover’s neck in the throes of passion. I did not actually eat it. Although I am hungry… (Please contribute to my fundraising page! Before I am forced to eat my own books!) But at some point I realized I’d underlined, starred or scribbled, “Yes!!!” on each of the last five pages. So, mutilated forever if not devoured.

I suppose you’ll want me to tell you something about it, even though I know you can use Google. Author: Russian, male, about my age, about my political sensibilities, intelligent, poet, activist, I think he’s in a rock band. I’d date him. Book: Poems, manifestos, essays of the current state of the Russian intelligentsia and reflections upon ethical and aesthetic responsibility in this crazy world. I’d recommend it.

As a race, but specifically as Americans, and especially as Gen-Xers who went to poetry readings in coffee shops in our Midwestern college towns, we have collectively been exposed to criminal amounts of BAD POETRY. We need support groups. Fortunately, the Russian literary tradition has higher standards for the art form than Cafe Ennui. Comparing the two is like comparing the Mariinsky’s Swan Lake with your niece’s dance recital. The latter is supporting the arts, the former having your life changed by art. Kirill’s poems aren’t the kind you’ll read out of obligation to convince yourselves you are still capable of doing that kind of thing. You won’t think, “Oh my god, TMI. I am not your therapist,” or, “You like the mountains, we get it.” Nothing about these poems will make you think they were written in a workshop in upstate anywhere. I promise. Example:

“BIG RUBBER COCK”

I saw it every day on the way to school.
I know that’s not the best way
to start a poem,
but there’s nothing I can do about my memories,
I can’t take the rubber cock out of my mind and replace it
with, say, a New Year’s tree.
I saw big rubber cocks every day on the way to school—
you could do anything back then—
it was 1991—
and sometimes best friends
buddy-buddy, as the Americans say,
even gave them to each other
as presents
simultaneously
by coincidence,
and it wasn’t even a joke
it was natural
a downpayment on eternity
a symbol of one’s success and prowess
eternal prowess,
the authorities
couldn’t get a grip
on the situation,
they didn’t know what to do
about the rubber cocks,
the fairly large rubber cocks,
they hadn’t learned to concentrate them in one place,
these cocks were everywhere,
they weren’t even manufactured here,
they were imported from America,
which didn’t know their true value,
no one knew their value,
in fact no one knew the value of anything,
we all lived like poets—and a poetic fate smelling of resin
(the Russian resina means rubber, that is, synthetic resin,
but there is also in English rOsin, hard resin, kanifol in Russian,
but in English like a rose
it’s a coincidence—rubber rose amber resin rosin)
so this smelly sticky mixture
connected us through the centuries
everything spoken seen and lived
and you can hear the buzz of every murdered nerve ending
every glass of wine from eight years ago
could end up making you vomit
for a very long time—
the imagination is active,
as if a play is on the stage,
and the wine is poured,
your mind is working,
your cigarettes are burning,
your mind is relaxing,
your eyes are narrowing,
the tension is rising
the authorities are rats
but how many more times
will we say about our homeland
our innocent and gentle
if sometimes cruel but in the end beloved homeland:

THIS FUCKING COUNTRY.

I’m not a fan of shock value poems, which mostly seem admissions of having run out of interesting ideas or being only 14 years old. But this works because it’s the author and his whole country, not the reader, on the receiving end. Most of you kids are smart enough to get the 1991 double-entendre here, no? If not, go read Naomi Klein. After you finish this.

Another poem I quite liked for no important reason is about why children don’t fear death:

they think
they’re going to die
as absolutely different people;
I think they think
that by the time they’re old enough
to die
everything about them will have changed,
and so it’s as it this won’t be
them dying

And this, which sounds whiny until the last line that punches a small breath out of you:

here’s what I wanted to say:
sometimes the lack of human interaction can make a person
physically ill
but sometimes human interaction is even worse than that
and since all is not lost yet
since some people still believe in us
and because some still consider us the voice of our generation
(and because we are, in the end, still standing)
I would like once more to emphasize that:
we are lonely
very few people believe in us
we are reluctant to show our poems
to our parents, to our close friends, to our acquaintances
no one believes in us
after a good day at work
no one will go have a beer with us
no one will teach us loneliness

My one quibble with his poems is that many remind one more than a little bit of Ginsberg and Whitman, with his “voice of our generation” and “pleasant evening cities,” and his

COME COME TO ME
BEFORE AN UNSPEAKABLE FORCE
TEARS US FROM OUR WORLDS
AND REFUSES TO PUT US BACK AGAIN
BEFORE WE’VE BEEN PUSHED INTO THE GUTTERS
OF PATHS NO ONE USES

with his combination of brash, raw intensity, playful pornography and angelic posture. But Kirill Medvedev is an astute observer of his fellow humans and a skilled writer, so I won’t protest if he’s claiming his place in this tradition. After all, Ginsberg wrote in homage to Whitman, and no one’s complaining. Still, one wonders if there is anything new under the sun. I don’t know enough about poetry to say K.M. is not innovative, but I have read enough to say it feels familiar. Familiar, yes, but very engaging. There is streak of madness to his method. These are not lyrical verse intended to provoke quiet individual reflection, but often calls to arms, implicit or explicit, to put aside our books and reverie for a minute and go live out there in the messy, insane, unnecessarily horrible world which you and I and he are a part of whether we like it or not. He can protest in front of theaters all he wants (he did that, writes about it… and yes, all writing about activism is ultimately embarrassing) but there are “actions” in his poems, in their will to live.

Which is aesthetically and ideologically consistent with the second part of It’s No Good, a collection of essays on contemporary intellectual life and political responsibility and activism, permeated with palpable frustration, warning against complacency and intellectual traditions that have outlived their usefulness. We’ve all been there, amirite?

His essays read like journal entries, are terribly accessible and the book contains a glossary of names which was helpful even to me. Some of the essays get a bit niche, though should be of interest to those of us who think the inner-workings of the Russian intelligentsia make those of the FSB seem as transparent as cellophane, or who are still obsessed with Eddie Limonov. I will always be obsessed with Limonov. I suspect Eddie Limonov gave me a psychological STD or something. And that you will get it from reading this blog, and that is how insanity perpetuates its existence.

What was I saying? Oh. Psychological STDs aside, Kirill Medvedev’s writings on the contemporary political environment in Russia come complete with a diagnosis of what is killing the liberal reformers, progressives, lefties, etc., how they got sick, and what needs to be done to cure them and restore health to Russia’s avant-garde. And he does so in a really History 101 way that I think even those with little or no familiarity with Russian intellectual history will find comprehensible. Largely because the Cliff’s Notes version of his politics is, “Communism? Socialism? Dissidents? Liberasl? Look, it’s the 21st Century and things have changed and we have to live our own lives in a way that mean something and make sense RIGHT NOW.” There is even a risk that much of it may not be profound news to anyone who has been paying attention to Russia for the past 20+ years. But it will certainly be savoured with great hedonistic gratification by anyone who is bloody fucking sick of writing blog posts on those infuriating, incompetent Russian liberals.

On which he muses:

Please don’t talk to me about your “historical experience” of Soviet oppression: it’s not your experience, it’s the experience of Mayakovsky (a Bolshevik), of Shalamov (a Trotskyist), of Mandelstam (a Socialist Revolutionary), of others.

Aka, not you mewing contemporary neoliberals trying to co-opt the plights of dead leftists. He also argues that the success of far-right intellectuals such as Dugin come from the fact that their ideas feel radical and “alive”,

“… in sharp visceral contrast to the liberal paradigm, where anything dangerous or incomprehensible or even interesting either could not exist at all or could exist only formally, not as itself but rather as an example of the liberalism and tolerance of the liberals.”

Can I get an Amen? It’s No Good is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have been blogging about Russian politics and culture in response to the too oft neoconish newsmedia in America and Britain whose Cold War framing of events prompt us to wonder if they would not in fact be happier if gulags were brought back, as their world does not seem to make sense without them. WaPo or BBC experts routinely take generic, meaningless topics like “clash of civilizations” or “liberal opposition” and speak of them as if only through their specialized analysis may we ever hope to glean what It All Means, turning vague ideas into a niche specialization for which they may be handsomely rewarded. Kirill Medvedev dumps all that nonsense on its head, does the opposite, taking niche interests, the Russian intellectual infighting or something, and with a bit of common fucking sense (this, from a poet!), shows them to be symptomatic of the global system affecting us all.

Are we not all living under neoliberal economic systems? Are we not all struggling to square our own ethics and need for meaning with the system we rely on for food and shelter and basic security? Are we not all looking at our elections thinking, this is no longer working, at our commercials thinking, what on earth is this shit?

Why aren’t more people writing like this?

And I think this is precisely why I think my American leftist friends can appreciate this book as much (perhaps more than, I suspect) as those kids out in Bolotnaya Square. There is, in I suppose the true left tradition, a universal/international perspective to his writing, focusing on individuals and systems rather than nationalities.

“… it seems to me that no matter how the world looked in 1989 or 1991 – and I know it looked different from how it looks today – we can all now admit that the notion of post-industrial capitalism as the best of all possible worlds is hardly the most progressive notion available.

… Should we stop writing poems? Go crazy from guilt? No. No. We just need to transform our picture of the world a little, and we can begin by ceasing to talk nonsense about the clash of civilizations.

Because otherwise you become an appendage of a system that allows you to take up whatever you want, develop whatever styles, discourses, and poetics you want, on the condition that you do not interfere with politics, with real life. And your “grown-up” credo (and, clearly, a reasonable and obedient member of the contemporary neoliberal system is first and foremost a GROWN-UP, as opposed to all those idealists, pseudo-rebels, and dreamers, who aren’t) will go like this: I am a humble man, my business is putting together words. As for everyone else, I think they should do what they want. And my ability to think this way is based in part on a gigantic military, and low electricity prices, and plenty of oil.

And this does not strike me as an idea befitting the glory of liberalism, which was once a progressive and salvational force in human history; and it does not strike me as an argument for individuation. This is society as an armed camp, as colonizer, as exploiter. It is an indication that liberal concepts have entered a period of exhaustion, when their proponents often find themselves trampling their own norms in the most cynical and vicious ways possible.

Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

Or,

“You cannot criticize the Putin regime without assessing your own place in it, whether as critic or artist. You cannot criticize an authoritarian Russian democracy without also assessing the role of the United States and its allies, without mentioning the worldwide division of labor, without recognizing the extent to which the situation here is a continuation of a worldwide process. It’s necessary to understand the extent to which your own consciousness determines your social existence, forces you to accept as obvious one or another set of perspectives. “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth that one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.”

It seems rare that we should have the opportunity to read such words from a Russian, in English, outside collections of pre-Stalin communist manifestos. How refreshing. I don’t even see enough Americans writing like this, let alone people in horrible Putinist Russia where there is no freedom of speech, ahem. Our choices, regardless what shitty regime we’re managing to survive under, are too often limited to mind-numbing apathy or hysterical fear-mongering. For all K.M.’S antics, his views are impressively thoughtful and constructive.

So, well, that’s the book.

I’m not done. Remember this? Lost in Translation. I have devoted no small amount of my already negligible energy to bitching about the lack of contemporary Russian literature in translation published in America. And in the meantime Writings From an Unbound Europe has shut its doors. So a round of applause for n+1 and Ugly Duckling Press for even making books like this available to the public. Now it is on us to show that an audience exists for such endeavors. And if there isn’t one, I’m mad enough to believe that it’s on me to create one. Nobody ever got any stupider for reading Russian poetry. Let me re-post this:


“Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

There are 7 billion people on this planet having valuable experiences and insights, and many are writing about them, and many of those people are not writing in English, and you don’t know *all* the languages. It is not simply geography, religion, socio-economic position that inform our experience, and create barriers between us, but language. Translation may be less than ideal solution to crossing that barrier and opening communication; it’s a precarious bridge, but a bridge nonetheless. Rarely do we cross such a bridge when our lives don’t become richer with nuance and possibility.

Do you not want a life richer with nuance and possibility? Are you already dead? Ok, then. Support you local publisher of books in translation!

Kirill Medvedev: It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions
Translator: Keith Gessen
Translator: Mark Krotov
Translator: Cory Merrill
Translator: Bela Shayevich
Co-published with Ugly Duckling Presse
Eastern European Poets Series #30
ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4

February 28, 2013

February Notes: I was a Maoist intellectual (watching YouTube the whole time I almost died from consumption.)

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 3:56 PM
Tags: , ,

Do you know of Momus aka Nick Currie? The Scottish musician artist intellectual provocateur person who also is very hot and wears an eye patch? No worries, I’m several decades late to this game. (Despite being oft mistaken for one, I am in fact allergic to art school people. Which is odd, since my mother and brother both fall into that category, and exposed at an early age, you’d think… Anyway.) I am positively obsessed, and it has reached a pathological level. An acquaintance of mine has informed me that my obsession is following the typical progression of the disease. And that there is no cure. Because he runs a record store, I believe him. It seems I’m destined to live a life of google-stalking Nick Currie and fantasizing about piratey Scotsmen.

So, here’s something kind of perfect.

February Notes: Predictable.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 3:50 PM
Tags: ,

At a small gathering of friends on one cold winter night, after several rounds of cocktails, the host offered to give everyone a Tarot card reading. Our evening of easy camaraderie swiftly turned a dark corner. One guest after another received readings featuring The Devil, The Tower, inverted major arcana and forecasts of suffering and ruin. While we all sat around a fireplace, there was a chill in the air. Friends squirmed in their seats and exchanged reassurances that it was just a party game. When it came my turn, the cards prophesied a future of depravity, perversion and forced gaiety. I believe it was the least harrowing of the night’s fortunes. I am ok with it.

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