One year, eight months, and twenty-eight days ago I unraveled.
Six weeks post-op from my final surgery, I found out that cancer wasn’t quite done with us yet. My mom had it too.
I lost a lot of things that spring—my words, my composure, my pride, my sanity, my optimism, quite a few friends—but thankfully not my mom. Unlike my own cancer, there were no silver linings. I lost a lot but found nothing. I learned nothing, either, least of all how to live in a world without my mom in it. That lesson, I suppose, is for another day, a day I’ll try not to think about much until it comes.
I guess I did discover something about myself, though I’m not sure if I’d call it learning. I found a part of myself that words don’t touch, that speaks no language. Even my own possible death didn’t strike this part of me. But hers did.
In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.
After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.
So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.
For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.
For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.
That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.
I’m doing a book club! Read my other posts about Brideshead Revisitedhere.
When we last left Charles, he was a middle-aged army officer who had just arrived at Brideshead, a place of such deep personal significance that he’s literally left speechless when he realizes where he is. Now he takes us back in time 20-25(?) years to his student days at 1920s Oxford, where he first met Sebastian Flyte, whose family lived at Brideshead and with whom he would quickly become entangled.
Young Charles comes from a middle-class(-ish?) family and is studying Intellectual Things(?) at Oxford and is interested in art. Honestly, much of the Oxford-related parts were really hard for me to fully understand because there are constant references to Oxford culture–perhaps specifically 1920s Oxford culture–that I don’t understand, and can sometimes resolve with a Google and sometimes not. For instance, I learned that Eights Week is some big rowing competition thing that still happens at Oxford every year. I also learned that back then Oxford students basically had servants whose job it was to clean their rooms for them. Also, even a not-filthy rich student like Charles had “rooms.” Rooms, plural! Not one shitty little dorm room that you share with a random roommate!
Charles fills his rooms with art, books, and wine, although he acknowledges that they’re not as nice as what he would like to say he could afford. In fact, Charles freely acknowledges that he ends up spending way too much on unnecessary things (so much so that he has to spend his summer vacation at home with his weird-ass dad–the horror!). I think Charles is struggling with something familiar to anyone from a modest or low-income background who suddenly finds themselves surrounded by really rich people, which is that being relatively poor tends to hurt worse than being absolutely poor.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Charles for having to have reproductions of art rather than originals hanging in his multiple rooms and “meager and commonplace” books rather than “seventeeth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered silk,” but when you’re a young person on your own for the first time and you’re trying to fit in with an entirely different social context than you grew up in (something that definitely described my own painful college experience), things like that can suddenly take on huge significance. When I was in college, I felt awkward and out of place because I couldn’t afford Urban Outfitters clothes and Longchamp bags, which everyone else seemed to have, but now I’m amazed that I ever gave a fuck and also regretful that I went to a school with such a lack of socioeconomic diversity that that ever became an issue.
Initially, Charles falls in with a bunch of similarly middle-class and intellectual friends, the kind he’d always had at school. But although he enjoys their company and loves college life, he remembers, “I felt at heart that this was not all which Oxford had to offer.” Indeed, everything changes for him when he meets Sebastian: “At Sebastian’s approach, these gray figures seemed quietly to fade into the landscape and vanish, like highland sheep in the misty heather.”
Charles’ and Sebastian’s first meeting is literally a scene out of a gay 1920s British romcom, if such a thing existed. Charles is chilling with his friends in his multiple fucking rooms–ground-floor rooms against which his older and wiser cousin warned him for the exact reason he’s about to discover–and drinking wine. They hear drunk people stumbling around outside, and suddenly one of them approaches the open window, looks at Charles, and proceeds to literally throw up right into the room.
One of his friend apologizes for him in what I can only imagine is a typical Oxford manner: “The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”
Anyway, Charles’ room-servant dude (they’re called scouts, and his name is Lunt) is pretty irate at him in the morning because, yes, scouts cleaned up your vomit for you at Oxford, but when Charles returns later that day, Lunt says that “the gentleman from last night” sent a note and literally enough flowers to fill up the whole room. Guys. Can we talk for a sec about how adorable that is.
Charles had already known Sebastian by reputation, and that reputation is that he’s hot as hell and that he carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, with him everywhere and talks to/about it as if it’s real. Seriously. Apparently he once went to a barber shop to buy a brush for Aloysius, not to groom him with but to spank him with. Like, he told this to the barber. Anyway, I love that in this social context a dude can be known all over the college both for being hot as hell and for talking to his teddy bear that he carries everywhere.
So of course I have to speculate about what’s up with the teddy bear. I think some readers would be tempted to consider the whole thing an affectation, a way to get attention by being ~~~so weird~~~ and ~~~so edgy~~~ and even kind of ~~~fucking with traditional masculinity~~~. But I don’t actually know exactly what traditional masculinity looked like for this particular segment of 1920s Oxford. Clearly Sebastian does get a lot of attention on account of the teddy bear, but Charles seems to think that he’d be getting it regardless. His family is kinda famous and weird, and he’s hot, and he’s rich, and he has a ton of friends and drinks a lot and throws up into people’s rooms.
There’s also the theory that Sebastian actually has a delusion that the teddy bear is alive and all that, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem to show any other signs of delusional/hallucinatory thinking. He doesn’t seem any more out-of-touch with reality than any other rich college student would be. Besides, this would be the most boring answer, and Waugh is not a boring writer.
I do think it’s part affectation–I think Sebastian likes being seen as the weird guy who carries a teddy bear everywhere–but there’s more to it. Even now it’s already obvious that Sebastian uses Aloysius as a way to admit to feelings that are otherwise difficult to admit and perform actions that are otherwise difficult to perform. For instance, in his apology note to Charles, he writes, “I am very contrite. Aloysius won’t speak to me until he sees I am forgiven, so please come to luncheon today.” (Oh yeah, that too–in the note, he invites him to lunch. CUTE.) Although Sebastian is apologizing, he displaces the agency from himself onto Aloysius. The teddy bear isn’t speaking to him, so he has to seek forgiveness from Charles. See, it’s not because he really wants forgiveness for himself; it’s all because of Aloysius.
So, long story short, Charles starts hanging out with Sebastian and his teddy bear and all his cool friends. It’s not without reservation, though, at least not at first. He goes “uncertainly,” with a “warning voice” telling him not to. “But,” he says, “I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at least, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that gray city.”
What the heck is he talking about? Excitement? Romantic love? Belonging? This is one of the passages folks cite when arguing that Brideshead Revisited is at least in part about a queer relationship (though there’s a lot more evidence for it than that), but I don’t think Charles is talking about just that, and more importantly, I don’t think he realizes himself what exactly he’s talking about. He’s chasing a feeling, a feeling that he gets in connection to Sebastian. He’s drawn to him for a lot of complicated reasons–some to do with family, some to do with class and money, some to do with social status, and probably some to do with attraction.
There are a lot of moments so far in the book that can be interpreted as hints that Charles and Sebastian are falling in love with each other–the fact that Sebastian becomes possessive of Charles and doesn’t want his family to “take” him away, the fact that Charles refers to Sebastian as “entrancing,” the fact that Charles has spring break plans with one of his soon-to-be-former friends but recalls without any guilt that he would’ve ditched him at a moment’s notice if Sebastian had invited him somewhere.
I doubt this view will surprise anyone who’s read anything I’ve written about art and literature, but I don’t think that “Do Charles and Sebastian like each other That Way?” is a particularly valid or interesting question when we’re talking about fictional people. The more valid and interesting question is, “Which different readings of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship can we justify using the text, and how can we justify them?”
Obviously, you can read the whole thing is Totally Not Gay At All and simply an allegory about wishing you had been born someone and somewhere else. It’s not that Charles is in love with Sebastian, it’s that he’s in love with the idea of him, with the idea of being so at ease in the world (this is an example of Charles’ naiveté and tendency to project things onto people–I don’t think Sebastian is at ease anywhere or with anything much at all), with his own idealization of Sebastian’s family, with Catholicism (I’m told this is going to play a massive role in the book, and is actually what Waugh intended for the book to be about, not that that means we have to agree with him).
You can also read their relationship as a romantic friendship, which means it falls into that interesting historical space where you cannot assign labels like “gay” or “straight” to people who did not use those labels. (I’m not entirely sure that 1920s Oxford lacked them, however; another character who becomes prominent in the next chapter was apparently thought of as “a homosexual,” but nevertheless, romantic friendships are probably impossible to categorize using modern sexual orientation terms.)
To me, the fact that you can’t really “know” if a romantic friendship was Actually Just Dudes Being Pals or Actually Totally Gay is part of what’s so fascinating about the concept. Sure, it rankles that part of me that hates and fears queer invisibility. But on the other hand, I love the idea of people engaging freely (or somewhat freely) in same-sex play and love under cover of what was actually a genuine and meaningful friendship. I also love how valuable those relationships must’ve been even when they involved no sex whatsoever, and I love how they subtly pushed back against the idea that the Serious Romantic Couple should be at the center of our interpersonal lives, and I love how they showed that the distinctions we now draw between Liking Someone As A Friend and Liking Someone That Way and Being Attracted To Someone are a lot less clear and obvious than most of us are comfortable admitting.
Anyway, I love romantic friendships and I love the reading that Charles and Sebastian have one.
On the other hand, you can definitely also make the case for a more explicit relationship, especially considering the jealousy stuff and Charles’ focus on Sebastian’s looks and other stuff that comes up later in the book that I won’t get into now. The 2008 Brideshead Revisited film actually took this route and had them kiss, although obviously movies can and do reinterpret the books they’re based on in lots of ways.
But honestly, every time I try to draw a line between what it would look like if Charles and Sebastian Liked Each Other That Way versus if they were Just Really Good Friends, I can’t. Yes, at that time it was probably pretty normal for friends–including men–to express their friendship in grandiose romantic terms. And at that time–meaning 1945–Waugh could not have published a book with explicit gay sex in it anyway. So did they or didn’t they? I have no idea, but it sure is fun to think about.
People interpret their own feelings based on their social context and the narratives they subscribe to about what different feelings mean and how people are supposed to interact. In a liberal American city in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that they’re into each other, and they might go on dates and have sex and eventually become boyfriends and move in together and get married and host really fun parties and have kids. (Or not.) In a conservative Christian small town in Texas in 2016, two men feeling the way Charles and Sebastian may have been feeling might decide that there’s something wrong with them, that they need spiritual help, that they’re sinful, or that, fuck it, we’re gonna meet up in the park late at night and hook up, or leave this fucking town entirely.
Of course, people can and do switch up these narratives all the damn time–otherwise there wouldn’t have been any queer people fucking in most of the world until recently–but it’s hard. Based on my read of this book so far, a man at Oxford in the 1920s could openly pursue sex or love with men and become known as The Campus Homosexual and be subject to lots of ridicule (but still find a social group, it seems like), but otherwise he was probably going to interpret any sexual/romantic feelings for other men in a different way–especially if he is also, like Charles, attracted to women.
So, long story short, Charles and Sebastian meet and become fascinated with each other and do whatever it is they’re doing. At the end of the chapter, Sebastian borrows a car from a friend and takes Charles home to Brideshead–not to meet his family, apparently, but to meet his former nanny.
From the start, Sebastian is acting kind of sketchy about his family. “Don’t worry,” he says about them to Charles, “they’re all away. You won’t have to meet them.” As if he’s concerned about Charles here rather than himself.
When Sebastian visits his nanny, he finds out that his sister Julia is actually staying at the house and is about to come home, at which point he mysteriously rushes Charles away. “What are you ashamed of, her or me?” asks Charles. Sebastian responds:
“I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.”
This is fascinating given that Charles and Julia eventually fall in love. (Sorry, spoiler. You can’t really avoid them when talking about classics. If it makes you feel any better, I had half the book spoiled for me just by reading the introduction, and anyway you don’t read these books for the plot.) What has Sebastian’s family already taken away? How much resemblance does his perception have to reality, or to their perceptions? Hopefully this is something that’s going to get clearer later.
Before leaving, Sebastian shows Charles the Brideshead chapel. When they enter, Sebastian crosses himself and does some other churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do, but when Charles copies him he gets “cross” and demands to know why Charles did that. He responds that it’s good manners, and Sebastian says, “Well, you needn’t on my account.”
What’s up with that? Charles and Sebastian haven’t discussed religion yet (at least, not in view of the reader), and as far as I know nothing’s been said about Charles’ religion. Yet Sebastian seems to assume that he’s faking, and finds that offensive, annoying, or both. I’m guessing that back then you sort of knew who was Catholic and who wasn’t because shit like that would’ve come up in conversation, but I still find it interesting that Sebastian doesn’t appreciate Charles doing the churchy stuff that you’re supposed to do. Maybe he sees him as encroaching on his territory or trying to get involved in parts of his life that he doesn’t want him to be “mixed up” with, just like his family. Maybe he’s lost his faith himself, so seeing someone else pretend at it is irritating.
In any case, Sebastian’s definitely annoyed at Charles for showing what Sebastian perceives as excessive interest in his family. Charles explains that he’s curious about people’s families because his mom died in the war (World War I, presumably) and he has no siblings, so it’s just him and his dad and the aunt that his dad “drove abroad” so she’s not really around either. So now it kind of makes sense that Charles idealizes Sebastian’s family and is totally fascinated by it even though he literally knows nothing about them besides whatever random gossip he may have heard at Oxford.
But then again, why Sebastian’s family specifically? Charles tells him that he’s “rather curious about people’s families,” but we haven’t seen him show any interest in anyone else’s families, certainly not those of his friends that he’s abandoned now that he’s got Sebastian. Soooo. Since I favor the queer reading myself, it feels to me like he’s doing that thing people do when they have a crush on someone and they’re desperately curious to know everything about them. That, mixed with Charles’ probably-genuine bitterness that he never really got to have a “normal” family (whatever the hell that is) and his wish to sort of become part of someone else’s.
Chapter One establishes the sort of person Charles was going into his young adulthood, the life he created for himself at Oxford, and the way he first became fascinated with Sebastian and his family. I find myself wishing that the class difference were a bit more fully explored, but maybe that’s coming later. (Maybe it’s not the only thing that’s coming later? Eh? EHHHH? Fine, I’ll show myself out.)
Reminder: comments are open! Please feel free to comment if you’re reading the book or have read it previously.
For more about queer readings of not-specified-queer characters, here’s my take on that in a much more modern context.
Maybe you’re already seeing more than one partner, or you’re hoping or planning to. Maybe you’re in a monogamous relationship that you want to open up. Maybe you’ve already told a few close friends, or your entire Facebook friends list.
For many polyamorous people, coming out to their parents is an important step. Some know that their parents will be accepting and coming out doesn’t feel like a big deal, but others anticipate some confusion, disagreement, or even rejection from their parents because of their choice to be polyamorous. And navigating this process isn’t always easy.
Although coming out as polyamorous to your parents is not at all mandatory – more on that later – it can sometimes be difficult or awkward not being out to your parents, especially if you’re young or really close with them.
Maybe you want to bring more than one partner home for the holidays. Maybe you have no idea how to respond to questions like, “Do you think they’re ‘The One?’” Maybe you just want them to know what’s going on in your life.
Not sure where to start?
Here are five tips for coming out as polyamorous to your parents.
1. Show Them Some 101 Resources
You don’t have to do all the work of explaining polyamory to your parents yourself. Luckily, many have already invented that particular wheel.
Many cities also have local groups that have events and meetings, some of which are geared towards people who are curious or apprehensive about polyamory and hoping to learn more. If you think this might help your parents, you can try searching Meetup for a group in their area.
2. Know That There Is No Right or Wrong Way to Come Out
Some people sit their parents down for a talk. Others prefer telling them over the phone or sending an e-mail. Some specifically state, “I’m polyamorous.” Others would rather simply say “So, I have two boyfriends” and leave it at that.
The best way to come out is the way that feels most comfortable and effective for you and your family.
If you know your parents tend to misinterpret or overreact during in-person conversations, e-mail might be best. If you want to hear their reaction, but know you can’t travel to see them for awhile, talking on the phone might be a good idea.
While it might be useful to consider how your parents prefer to communicate, coming out is about you and your identity. If your parents prefer to talk on the phone, but phones give you anxiety, you definitely don’t have to use their preferred communication method.
3. Ask Your Parents What Worries or Concerns Them About Polyamory
If your parents aren’t exactly enthusiastic in response to your coming out, asking them what bothers them about polyamory can be an effective way to get to the heart of the issue (and possibly reassure them).
While you are absolutely not obligated to defend your identity or choices – more on this in the next section – sometimes you might want to, and this is one way to do it.
Many parents of polyamorous folks fear that their children will face stigma and rejection and have a really difficult time finding people to date. They might worry that it means they’ll never become grandparents or dance with their child at their wedding.
While you may not be interested in marriage or children (whether you’re polyamorous or not), maybe you are – and letting your parents know that these choices are completely compatible with polyamory may ease their concerns.
Of course, it’s true that polyamorous people still face stigma and that it can be hard to find compatible partners sometimes. But that stigma is starting to fade and more and more people are trying polyamory, so it can only get better from here.
Showing your parents some positive coverage of polyamory in the media, such as this Atlantic article, can help.
My favorite moment of any camping trip is the first morning.
I wake up in my tent having finally made it through a spooky and often uncomfortable night–air mattresses and sleeping bags are not my thing–and feel relieved. I can hear dry leaves and twigs crunching beneath footsteps, the thud of hiking boots on dirt and gravel. Water pours from a spigot nearby as someone fills a kettle or washes their hands. There are sleepy conversations, debates about breakfast and pleas for the kids to brush their teeth. Having never been camping with anyone besides my family and their boisterous, colorful friends, I’ve only ever heard these discussions in Russian. Camping, like baking, knitting, and skiing, happens in my native language.
Outside the smoke curls lazily from campfires that finally collapsed shortly before dawn. Pale morning sunlight filters through the canopies of the trees, catches the drifting smoke, stumbles over the tops of the tents, and finally lands in my little sister’s hair, glowing golden, as she pulls me over for breakfast.
The picnic tables almost sag with the weight of the food and drink. Last night’s empty bottles line the tables, but so do this morning’s omelets, sausages, bread, cheese, hardboiled eggs, bagels, fruit, and tea. People shove food into my hands. Water from last night’s apparent rain runs off the blue tarp that hangs over the tables, and I find a dry spot to sit with my paper plate.
And as I look out from my perch at this small piece of the world, the things that seemed so treacherous in the dark just last night–the things you trip over, the things you step into, the things that cast creepy shadows in the firelight–now look boringly normal. The perilous trek to the campground toilets now reveals itself as a short and simple path. The black water of unfathomable depth that I saw at the edge of the flashlight’s beam is just a pond. Dragonflies flit over it, and a frog croaks at its edge.
In the morning, everything suddenly feels safe and familiar again.
When I feel scared, uncomfortable, and alone, I sometimes think about those camping trip mornings, and about how the exact same things can seem so much safer in the sunlight. This visualization that is also a memory calms me down. I think about the transformation that happens at sunrise that first day, of threatening to friendly, strange to familiar.
That transformation is mirrored in my own life to a frustrating degree. People I once held my tongue around and felt anxious with become my closest friends. Streets I explored cautiously, my eyes darting around as though searching for threats, become streets I walk down proudly, yet casually. Things that seemed burdensome and inconvenient to do become routines: ignorable at worst, comfortable at best.
It may not sound like something you’d describe as “frustrating,” but I do, because I can’t seem give myself permission to not be okay with everything immediately. Why couldn’t I have immediately recognized that person as the lovely friend that they are? Why didn’t I see these streets as my home? Why couldn’t I always do these things easily and automatically?
It’s just not how my brain works. I’d venture to guess it’s not how most people’s brains work.
I wish I were someone who craved novelty, who relished the unfamiliar, who reveled in uncertainty. Someone who could cherish their memories without feeling desperate to relive them. But I am not that person. I want it to feel like the camping trip morning all the time. I want to wake up and realize that I know exactly where I am, mentally and physically. I want to stumble outside, rubbing the dreams from my eyes, and see the people I love there waiting for me.
And most of all, I want to feel that these are acceptable things to want.
This post may have more questions than answers. You have been warned!
For a while I’ve been noticing a certain tension in activism of various kinds. On the one hand, we want people to care about our causes not because those causes are necessarily proximal to them and impact their lives directly, but because these causes are just important and working on them contributes to a better world. On the other hand, relating these causes to people and showing them why the causes are relevant to their own lives gets them to care when they otherwise might not.
The particular example of this I’m going to talk about is the “they’re your friends/family/neighbors” approach, and my two subexamples are women’s rights and mental health advocacy.
For instance, in this past year’s State of the Union address, Barack Obama said this: “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace and free from the fear of domestic violence.” Sexual assault, too, is often talked about in this way, when men are exhorted to “imagine if it happened to your mother/sister/daughter/girlfirend/wife.”
Similarly, during the National Conference on Mental Health this past June, Obama (again) uttered the following sentence: ”We all know somebody — a family member, a friend, a neighbor — who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.” (Notably, none of the conference speakers actually identified as mentally ill except one woman on one panel, so the conference seemed to be addressed at people who have mentally ill family members, friends, and neighbors as opposed to people who have mental illnesses.)
Although these verbal maneuvers are so common as to pass unnoticed by most people, they’ve been criticized soundly. For instance, writing about Obama’s State of the Union address, mckennamiller at Daily Kossays:
The time is long past due that we recognize the value of all people by their inherent worth, rather than by their relationship to someone else. The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because “you’ve got a gay friend,” it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.
Writing about Steubenville, the Belle Jar Blog says:
The Steubenville rape victim was certainly someone’s daughter. She may have been someone’s sister. Someday she might even be someone’s wife. But these are not the reasons why raping her was wrong. This rape, and any rape, was wrong because women are people. Women are people, rape is wrong, and no one should ever be raped. End of story.
And, writing about the mental health conference, C.D. says:
Second, the “friends and family” approach makes it seem like people with mental illnesses are only important in the context of their relationships. In the President’s speech, we are defined not as individuals, but within the structure of relationships with “sane” people – the “family member, friend, neighbor” who knows us. This makes us secondary players in our own illnesses: our conditions are important not because they’re destroying our lives, or making every day a struggle, but because they’re making our loved ones miserable.
I agree with these arguments. I think that the “friends and family” approach, which I will call the “appeal to kinship” for lack of a better term, implies–not intentionally–that people should care about these issues because, well, wouldn’t it suck if that happened to someone you love?
I think the “not intentionally” part is absolutely vital here. A lot of people respond to the arguments above with things like “Yeah well Obama didn’t mean that women have no worth if they’re not related to you” and “But nobody said that we should only care about mentally ill people because they’re our friends and family” and so on. Yes, if we were saying that Obama et al literally mean to say that we shouldn’t rape women and we should help the mentally ill get treatment simply because sometimes people we love get raped or have mental illnesses, that would be an incredibly uncharitable interpretation. But that’s not what these arguments are claiming.
They’re claiming that very kind, very well-intentioned phrases and statements can still send the wrong message, a message that the speaker never meant to send but that is getting sent nonetheless.
Do speeches like Obama’s actually convince people that they should only care about rape survivors or mentally ill people who happen to be part of their lives? I doubt it’s quite that simple. But they probably reinforce the preexisting tendency that most people have to value their loved ones over their not-loved ones, which isn’t a problem when it comes to personal relationships, but is a problem when it comes to social justice: the biggest problems facing people in this world are the problems least likely to affect the friends and family of your average listener of Obama’s speeches.
However, speechwriters and activists do not pick their strategies at random. I think that the reason appeals to kinship are so often made is because they probably work. People do have a bias toward those who are close to them proximally and relationally, and many people are probably more likely to get invested in a cause if they think it affects those they love than if they have no reason to think that. There’s a reason coming out in various forms is such a powerful political act; not only does it humanize people who have been considered “other” for decades or centuries, but it also often jolts the friends and families of those people into awareness. The conservative, anti-gay politician who suddenly flip-flops when a family member comes out as gay or lesbian is a tired trope by now, but there’s a reason it happens.
If this is truly the case that people care more about issues when they believe those issues affect the people they love–and, based on what I’ve studied, it probably is–that brings up a bunch of difficult questions. If appeals to kinship are effective, are they justified despite the possible harmful implications?* How successful would they need to be in order to be justified?
Even supposing we choose to use appeals to kinship to get people to care about things we think they should care about, that doesn’t mean we have to just accept that people are biased in this way. Can we get people to unbias their thinking and care as much about issues that do not affect their own own loved ones? If so, how? After all, while it’s true that there’s a good chance that some of your friends and family are queer, mentally ill, or victims of sexual assault, how likely are they to be living in abject poverty? How likely, if you are white, are they to experience racism? How likely are they to be incarcerated?
The appeal to kinship is similar to another strategy often used in liberal activism: “_____! They’re just like us!” With this tactic, people are persuaded to care about some minority group’s lack of rights by making them see that the members of this group are really just like them and therefore deserve rights. For example, the push for same-sex marriage rights and the way that that push has now become the most visible and most-supported LGBT cause is a prime example of this. Being unable to legally marry is objectively not the biggest problem facing queer people, but it’s getting the most attention. Why? Partially because queer people who get married are Just Like Us.** It’s no surprise that a certain very popular current song about same-sex marriage is literally called “Same Love,” after all.
Unfortunately, premising one’s activism on people being Just Like Us has two negative effects: 1) it fails to challenge the idea that people must be Just Like Us to deserve rights, and 2) it fails to help those who cannot somehow be shown to be Just Like Us. That’s why liberal activism frequently ignores the most marginalized people–they’re the hardest to portray as being just like “ordinary” (white, middle-class, straight, Christian, etc. etc. blahblah) folks.
So, to expand on my original questions a bit: Should we acknowledge the limitations of the Just Like Us approach to activism while using it anyway? Should we stop using it? Although this approach has ethical issues, could it be even more unethical to abandon a strategy that can do a lot of good? How do we get people to care about oppression, discrimination, and prejudice even when it does not affect anyone they have a personal connection to, or anyone they feel very similar to?
Although I’ve presented some arguments here, I don’t actually intend for this post to answer any of these questions. So if you have answers, the floor is yours.
* I should note that more research is needed (as always) on this. Not just on the effectiveness of appeals to kinship, but also on their potential dangers.
** For a really fantastic and in-depth treatment of same-sex marriage and assimilation, read this piece by Alex Gabriel.
Since I’m always blathering on about consent, including consent in non-sexual situations, I’ve noticed a common belief that a lot of people have. It can basically be summed up like so:
If you’re interacting with someone sexually, you need their consent. (Duh.)
If you’re interacting with someone of the gender to which you’re generally attracted (i.e. you’re a straight man interacting with a woman), you should be careful and get their consent before you touch them.
BUT! If you’re interacting with someone of a gender to which you’re not attracted, or you’re interacting with a family member or a friend and so the situation is, in any case, “not sexual,” THEN you don’t need their consent and you should feel free to hug them, touch them on the shoulder, or even grope them “as a joke.”
The reason this is on my mind right now are two articles, and my life in general.
One article is by Ginny over on the Polyskeptic blog. She recounts a disturbing incident in which another woman wanted to get a better look at the tattoo on the back of Ginny’s shoulder and proceeded to lift up the strap of her tank top in order to do so–without consent. A man nearby told the woman off, but she responded that it’s “just the shoulder” and “I just really like tattoos.” And then:
But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”
She didn’t realize that which gender(s) she happens to be attracted to is completely irrelevant.
Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea tosubtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.
Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.
Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.”
Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)
A slightly different but similar thing happens with friends and family. People–especially children–are often shamed and guilt-tripped for choosing not to show physical affection for family members, even ones they do not know well or necessarily feel comfortable around. The assumption here is that being someone’s family member entitles you to physical affection from them, just like being someone’s partner entitles you to sex from them. While plenty of people hold one of these assumptions but not the other (generally the first but not the second), they are cut from the same cloth. And that cloth is the belief that social tiesentail a duty to provide physical affection, and that if you do not provide it, you are being a bad friend/child/sibling/partner/etc.
How does this relate to the three stories I linked to? Well, many people apparently believe that once you take sexual attraction out of the equation, there’s absolutely no reason for someone to be uncomfortable with being touched (in nonsexual ways). If a gay man sits next to me on the train and starts touching me, I have to be okay with that because he’s not interested in me that way. If a straight woman starts lifting up my clothes to see parts of my body that I covered up, I have to be okay with that because she’s not interested in me that way. If a family member wants a hug and a kiss from me, I have to provide them because, well, obviously it’s not “like that.”
(False, by the way. While I am fortunate to never have experienced incest, plenty of people have.)
For starters, I’m really glad that some people have realized that you shouldn’t touch strangers without their consent if there’s a possibility that you’re sexually attracted to those strangers. But why can’t we expand that to people of all genders, whether you’re attracted to them or not?
There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.
Furthermore, if we accept “but I’m not even into [your gender]” as an excuse for nonconsensual touching by well-meaning folks, that also leaves it open as an excuse for actual predators to use.
Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.
Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.
I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.
There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.
Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.
Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.
There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.
The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.
Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.
Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.
(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)
On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.
Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.
I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.
Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.
A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.
I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.
I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.
This week I learned that depression and writer’s block together is a scary thing, as writing is my primary way of alleviating depression. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t write was because I was refusing to write the piece that was trying to come out. When I finally let myself “feel the feels,” this is what resulted.
In the dark and the stillness, the floor of my family’s house creaks and groans.
I have this ritual whenever I come home. Or, as I should probably call it, “home.”
I walk through the whole house and find all the things that are different. Like that game where you look at a picture and then you look at another, nearly identical picture and you have to spot the changes.
One time they had a new machine for juicing citrus fruits. They made fresh juice out of it. Now they make it for me every time.
Another time they had new bookshelves for me to look through. New photos, almost every time, of a little brother and sister who grow up without me now. This time they took apart the kids’ bunk bed. They’re too old for it now; they sleep on their own beds now.
Next time, maybe, they’ll have their own bedrooms.
Things will fall apart and be replaced. New gadgets will appear, charging next to the landline phone. There will be middle school textbooks, high school textbooks, someday. There will be other things, things people need as they grow old, things I can’t think about without literally weeping.
The floor will creak a bit more each time.
Before I left for college, my parents promised me that they’d never clean out my room and turn it into anything else. “This will always be your room, your home,” they said.
They didn’t lie. The only ways they alter my room is to clean it after I leave from my visits, always in a hurry, always leaving behind half my stuff and dragging away other stuff; or when my mom wants to borrow clothes that I left behind. I’ll come home and see her wearing something I’d long forgotten and she says, “Oh, I took this. Hope you don’t mind!” I don’t.
When I come “home” my room is almost the same. Entering it is like reentering the world of my high school self, although I can never really feel or understand that world again. I was so alone. Politically conservative, overly romantic, unable to put a name to the dark moods that often consumed me. The worst was definitely still to come, of course, but I already had a glimpse of what I was in for.
The only source of continuity, really, is writing. Even in high school I was known for that. A very different type of writing, sure, but writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals fill my old room.
Nearly half a year ago my depression suddenly remitted. Before that, coming home was a treasure. It wasn’t “home” back then; it really was home. I lived for those school breaks. I daydreamed about them in class, at the gym, while I took walks. Nothing felt better than dropping my bags at the bottom of the stairs and taking that first tour of the house, playing the “What’s Different?” game.
After the depression was over, everything changed. Home doesn’t feel like home anymore. It’s merely “home” now.
Now coming “home” feels like being ripped out of my skin and put into another one. Sometimes it triggers a brief depressive episode; the rest of the time it just feels numb. Every object in the house seems to tell me stories about impermanence and decay, even as the house is gleaming and beautiful as ever.
I don’t understand the girl who once lived here. I don’t even want to. But sometimes, what I wouldn’t give to be her for just one more day.
The more this happens the less I want to come “home,” and the more the guilt builds and builds. My mom saw me crying and assumed it was about my finals (as it had been earlier), and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s because I have no home anymore and I don’t belong anywhere and no matter where I go I just can’t come home.
It’s like everything comes at a price. This seems to be the price I pay to be free–mostly–of depression in my day-to-day life. Religious folks might say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I say, sometimes shit happens. Sometimes this is just how brains work.
And, sometimes, people grow up. Some people will always cherish returning to their childhood homes and swimming through those memories. But I, it seems, just can’t do that. I love this house and the people in it so dearly but it’s not home anymore. That breaks my heart.
Now I know that if I ever want to come home again, I can’t go back. I can only go forward.
Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.
“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.
“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?
“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”
And here’s what I said:
Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:
Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?
Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.
Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.
Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.
If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!
Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?
No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:
Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?
She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.
If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.
What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?
Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.
Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.
Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?
These things matter.
Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.
I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.