One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

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The Long Haul

I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. I feel like a different person than I was two weeks ago–less optimistic, more hectoring, depressive instead of just anxious. Most of the time, I’m hyper-activated, scanning the crowds I walk through for people who might pose a physical threat. I’m afraid to walk across campus alone at night, and my conversations keep turning into long rants in which I Cassandra on about the effects of authorizing hatred, how Trump will change the face of the Supreme Court in a way that will ruin countless lives, how even if Trump is incompetent, the people he’s hiring aren’t, they’re just evil. And we don’t even know what it will be like until the next San Bernadino, at which point we are all seriously fucked in a way that there’s no coming back from. And the scary thing is that most people don’t try to talk me down–the conversations often just end with us staring off into space in terrified silence.

We’re in DC for Thanksgiving, which is so, so strange. Everyone here seems to be either clad in camo hunting gear and a Make America Great Again hat or swimming in the oceans of grief behind their eyes. The memorabilia store in our hotel is full of Trump bobbleheads, next to the Clinton ones they’d foolishly bought ahead of time, jinxing us all.

We arrived on Monday, and I discovered the next day that we just missed the big White Power rally over the weekend. For all I knew, our hotel was full of people who’d stayed to sight-see for the holiday after zeig heiling our president-elect. I was in our room putting Teddy into bed when I read the news, and I felt like I could never leave. I’d looked forward to running while we were here, but now that seemed idiotic–I would just be asking for trouble. Even going down to the pool to watch my daughter swim with her cousins felt naive and foolish. A swimsuit might as well be a target. Et cetera.

I’m in this funny spot, because my experience of violence gives me first-hand insight into this whole process, but just those same experiences put me in a place where I’m so activated that my responses are simultaneously less reliable than others. Or–not less reliable, but so noisy that they get in the way of action. And what we need right now is action.

The strategy that worked the best came to me a few nights ago. I woke up at 1 AM, and immediately started my usual Roll Call for the Apocalypse: queer teenagers driven to suicide by federally funded ex-gay ministries, rising sea levels, racist cops armed with tanks and machine guns against peaceful protesters, beloved friends fleeing the country, and on and on.

I realized that the other time I felt most like this was when I was in the hospital ten years ago, after I had my colon removed. I couldn’t leave, and there was a situation completely out of my control that was progressing despite my best actions, seemingly inevitably toward destruction. One of the many things I tried to calm down was hypnosis, a strategy I’d used to sleep since I was a kid.

I had terrible insomnia as a little girl, and my parents got me this hypnosis tape, which I listened to nearly every night. A kind, avuncular voice would drone through a progressive relaxation script: “picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands. Let everything go loose and lazy.” One side of the tape changed gears at the end to more general self-esteem and anti-anxiety stuff. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” It didn’t really work–I was rarely asleep by the end, and remained unconvinced by his kindness (after all, for all the disembodied voice knew, I was drowning puppies in my spare time). But all that practice made me simultaneously susceptible to hypnosis and resistant to its lure. At fairs and stage shows, I listen along and am calmed, but am never tempted to quack like a duck or forget my name.

So I tried another script in the hopes that I could recapture some of its calming effect. In this one, I’m walking down stairs, and I get deeper into hypnosis with every step. When I get to the bottom, there’s a dial, and I can physically dial down my own anxiety. In my mind, the dial was huge and steel, like the knob on an industrial oven. I paused at three–it seemed stupid to relax any further–but ultimately turned the dial all the way down to one, since I did need to sleep. And I could feel it working. Maybe this is the upside of all my PTSD magical thinking right now? If my negative thoughts have this kind of power over my world-view, maybe my positive ones do too?

I looked up from the dial, and I was in a white room with green carpeting–one that looked vaguely familiar in the way of all dream-spaces. This one was a vacation-space–a lake house or something along those lines. Close to something beautiful, set aside from the rest of the world. There was another version of me there, waiting, dressed all in white (apparently hypnosis-me is not only better at calming down, but she doesn’t spill food on herself all the time). I can’t remember if she said anything, as I was close to sleep at this point, but I knew that she could take care of me. That she was a grown up, ready to face what’s next, whatever that may be.

Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my apocalyptic thinking is right. Things are on the verge of getting very, very bad, and when they start to go south, I think that will happen quickly. But in all the noise of my fear, it’s easy to forget that I don’t just have experience suffering from trauma–I also have experience recovering from trauma, and building a life that I love and want to protect. If I want to show up for the long haul (which this is), I need to have the energy to keep going for it.

What that means for me today is that I’m trying to take one concrete action every day to beat back the darkness, and to take at least one action every day to remind myself I’m not alone. So I’ll write something, or give money, or have a hard conversation with a loved one, or make a political phone call. And I’ll make a list each morning of things I’m grateful for, in the here and now. Today it’s my in-laws, who have taken my daughter for touristy adventures so I could exercise and write.

All this energy in me feels like a fire, burning through the lies I’ve told myself over the years. I need to be cleaned out and renewed, not consumed by it.

 

Doubly Bound

Here’s the third of four promised posts to raise money for 826 Boston. Please donate, and help young writers find their way.

My mom had insisted we take pictures on the Pont Neuf Bridge, assuring us that it was a famous spot, especially renowned for Vogue Magazine fashion shoots. In the pictures, we’re hamming it up for the camera, sucking in our cheeks and bending our heads back at angles so unnatural they must be glamorous.

I was very careful about what to bring along in terms of clothes, only choosing those objects which might distance me from my inescapably pedestrian American-ness. In the pictures, I’m spinning in a new dress, bought just for this trip. It was rayon, with a black and white floral print—simple, but not quite geometric, and a full inch above my knee at least. I could pair it with any color I wanted, but that day I kept things really simple, with black opaque tights and flats, cat’s-eye glasses and a slash of burgundy lipstick.

My mother was thrilled to bring me shopping just before we left. “You’ve worked so hard,” she gushed, “it’s nice to be able to show off a little.” Looking at myself in the window of the Métro as we zoomed around Paris, I stood out in monochrome contrast to all the men wearing Easter-Egg-colored suits all around us. The way they looked at me made me feel like I’d been singled out by a director in every frame—the opposite of that music-video trick where only one thing is in color, but with the same effect of my being marked, special, set apart.

xxx

At Jenny Craig, they measured us every Thursday during our Personal Counseling sessions. After weigh-in, my counselor, Ms. Carlson, brisk in her off-brand Talbots jacket, wound a tape measure around my waist, between my shoulder blades, around my hips, unspooling a yellow ribbon for the total inches lost since I had started. By the time we left for Europe, the record of my steady dwindling was as long as my arm.

At the end of this meeting, I got the print-out of my weekly meal plan to review before we stocked up on all the microwave-ready boxes to bring home, then we talked over how I would cover the extra dairy and fat exchanges I got since I was under sixteen.

“Be mindful of these extra exchanges,” Ms. Carlson warned me, “these choices are where you build up your muscles for later, when you’ve reached your Goal and can transition to your Maintenance Plan.” Every day after school I would have a bowl of rolled oats and skim milk and raisins—I could already taste the copper zing of the raisins two block before the bus reached my stop.

Since almost all Jenny Craig food came in boil-in-the-bag pouches, like the MREs you get at sporting-goods stores for camping, I had to go to the teachers’ lounge to cook it almost every day. My English teacher was my sentry, standing next to me as I used the microwave, a visual reminder that I wasn’t out of bounds, not really.

xxx

On the Métro, there was a guy in a yellow suit sitting across from us. He should have looked silly, I suppose, like Dick Tracy or Jim Carrey in The Mask, but Europe lent everything a touch of glamour, even candy-colored menswear. His black hair was slicked back, and he was openly staring at me. At first I felt embarrassed, but then I realized I could just stare back, so I did, challenging him to look away. But he never did, not for two straight stops. I felt giddy, like when I leaned up against the window at my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building and willed myself to gaze down at the concrete twenty-five stories down. And when our stop arrived, leaving was even better. I was heady with the knowledge that I could just get off the train whenever I want, take myself away from him and garner more jewel-toned admirers across this weird city, with its arty subway stops and tiny winding streets.

We alit at a park, with the cathedral we were planning to visit laying just on the other side. I made sure to speed ahead so there were about ten yards between me and my family—I could hear them if I ended up going in the wrong direction or if they wanted to stop for ice cream (my mother assured us that we were on a break from our Plan while on vacation), but maybe the people around us would just think I was an average French lady, in my stylish minidress and ballet flats. Maybe they’d think I was a dancer.

There was a group of men playing some kind of lawn bowling off to the side. I took longer steps, as if I were on my way to an important meeting or other engagement. I could feel my purse sway as I walked. I pretended not to notice them looking at me, except for a quick, weary smile, as if I got this all the time.

But moments later I heard them hooting after me like sirens. I couldn’t understand the content, but the form was familiar enough. My cheeks burned as my pace wavered, and I could hear my dad storming up behind me before feeling the weight of his L. L. Bean barn coat on my shoulders and his hand gripping my upper arm, hard.

“What the fuck were you thinking, dressing like that?” His voice was a low hiss, but anyone looking on could tell what was happening, and the burst of laughter from my boules-playing audience only confirmed my transition from heroine to punch line.

“That skirt is ridiculous—I’m not surprised that this is what people think of you.”

He sped up, leaving me to hang back so my mother and sister could catch up with me. When we got to the church, my dad was taking pictures of flying buttresses. This is the first cathedral where they could build tall stained-glass windows, my mom informed Kate and me as we entered the cool, dark foyer. Before this architectural innovation, churches could barely let in any light at all. The walls had to hold up all the weight of the structure, so the buildings had low ceilings and tiny windows like the kinds in a basement—close to the ceiling and barely big enough for someone to squeeze through if there were a fire or something.

We walked into the chapel while my dad surveyed the outside of the building. A tall window before me reminded me of one in our church at home—it must have been St. Francis, because he was surrounded by animals. The sheep sidled up to his hand, shy and deferential as he scattered grain around them.

In Praise of Smoking

So here’s my second of four promised entries as part of 826 Boston’s Write-a-thon. Please, give what you can to this fantastic organization, and help young writers find their voices.

They say smoking kills, but my family must be the exception that proves the rule, because my father and I can both claim that smoking saved our lives. For my dad, there’s the added drama of history: no shit, he was working at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was on his way to the very wing that got hit to check out the recent renovations when he stepped outside for a cigarette. While he was outside, my brother called from New York to let him know that he was safe. As they were trading shell-shocked analyses of the situation, my dad felt the ground shake under his feet and the call suddenly dropped. He wandered through Rosslyn for over an hour before he could make the outgoing calls that brought him out of limbo and back into the world.

His own father had died at 64 of emphysema, and the constant game of codependent chicken between him and my mother was the background noise of my childhood, as she tried to hold out new punishments or rewards that might convince him to quit: “I’m going to sign up for this class to learn Spanish, because I know it’s important that I keep up my interests after you die and I’m alone”; “If you quit smoking, I swear I’ll stop bothering you about how much money you spend restoring your motorcycle.” That year at Thanksgiving, though, there was a minor coup during our annual gratitude parlor game in which we write down what we’re grateful for and then everyone has to match the person with the statement. My mother’s lips got thinner as she unfolded piece after piece of creased paper declaring how glad we were that he still smoked. “You shouldn’t encourage him,” my mom huffed, “he already thinks he’s bulletproof, and this certainly isn’t helping.”

For me, it was less dramatic. Following the pattern of idiot teenagers since the beginning of time, I started smoking in high school. My dad bought Marlboro Lights by the case and kept them in a drawer next to the phone in the kitchen. There were never fewer than five packs in the drawer at a time, so it was easy for me to take one. I’d been pretending to smoke pen caps in class since grade school, but the mechanics of actual smoking didn’t come so naturally.

The first time, I snuck out to a stump in the backyard and tried to train myself the rhythm of it. The whole operation was a secret, so I had no mentor to coach me in the art of the drag, how you pull the smoke into your mouth and then inhale. I thought you were supposed to breathe off it like a scuba mask, taking the smoke directly into your lungs–after the first few tries, I found myself doubled over and dizzy.

I never liked the “buzz” from smoking, but I loved every other thing about it–how I suddenly got extra breaks from my jobs at the bagel shop and the movie theater; how it slowed me down and forced me to focus on my breathing; how I made instant friends with my fellow smokers as we huddled together against the cold; how it finally gave me something to do with my hands. I especially loved lighting cigarettes for other people, and trained myself to maintain eye contact with them as I did so rather than fumbling with the flame.

But the greatest benefit was only apparent in retrospect. It turns out that nicotine can put ulcerative colitis into remission—since colitis is an autoimmune disease, the way that smoking shuts down your immune system is actually a boon for people with IBD. When I left home for college and started smoking in earnest, a pack a day, the terrifying physical symptoms that had been picking up speed the entire time I was in high school mysteriously vanished, and I didn’t have to think about them again until I quit eight years later and they almost immediately returned.

***

I don’t actually know when the blood in the toilet started, but by my senior year in high school, it was happening a lot. As with everything my body did, from my first period at age ten to my sixth-grade C-cup, this change seemed to have come out of nowhere to work its dark magic through me. It was four weeks before I left for college when I found myself back in my pediatrician’s office. I’d already gotten all my shots and done my last off-to-the-real-world visit, but I had inexplicably fainted in the shower two days before. I stood up from shaving my legs, like I did every morning, and suddenly found myself flat on my back, blinking water away, the stern eye of the shower head staring down at me. I’d also missed my period the month before, and couldn’t figure it out. Most days I subsided on handfuls of movie theater popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper, but I seriously binged whenever I was high (which was a lot), so I was still a size 10—hardly thin enough to stop my period.

My mom stood next to me as the nurse practitioner wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” she asked. She was looking at me, not my mom, so I answered no, feeling the cuff tighten. “She has tons of energy normally,” my mom reassured the nurse, “and she’s never fainted–right, honey?” I nodded.

“Why don’t you wait out in the hall for a moment so we can chat,” the nurse practitioner said to my mom, and after she was gone, the nurse asked me—not unkindly—“Is there any chance you might be pregnant?”

I burst out laughing. “Maybe it’s the second Immaculate Conception! I hear we’re due for one.” And it was true—I was very careful that none of my basement makeout sessions had come even close to anything that would lead to a baby. My mother reminded Kate and me daily, it seemed, that although she had been thrilled by the news that she was pregnant with each of us, that she had been on birth control for every pregnancy—the Sponge for Kate and Sean, the Pill for me. “I just couldn’t remember to take it every day! But thank goodness, because if I had a better memory then I wouldn’t have you.”

So I knew I wasn’t pregnant—that would be impossible.

But, in retrospect, I do know what it must be like for women who don’t know they’re pregnant. Such a thing seems impossible, that your body could undergo such radical changes without your knowing it, but the truth, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Sitting on that cushioned table, talking to this kind lady in a white coat, it just never occurred to me to mention that I’d been shitting blood for over a year. It wasn’t that I was purposely keeping it from her, it just never crossed my mind as worth mentioning.

Every now and then, when it was happening, I’d have a brief moment of bone-deep terror—like when you’re halfway up the ascent of a roller coaster that’s way scarier than you thought it would be, or in a nightmare when you suddenly remember you’ve committed a terrible crime. But I would just flush and wash my hands and immediately forget, a clean slate.

Sweets

So, you might be wondering to yourself: Where has Anne gone? What is she up to? My life is so empty without this intermittently updated blog, what will I doooooo?

Have no fear. Motivated by the incredible work of 826 Boston, I’m starting on another posting pledge! So, for the next month, I’m posting here at least once a week with excerpts from what I’m currently working on (some kind of long-form autobiographicalish thing–the unholy child of a memoir and a novel?). In honor of the teenagers who provide the creative energy to 826 Boston, I’m focusing most of what I’ll be posting (at least four short entries, maybe more) on my own teenaged exploits. So get ready for flat, cold landscapes, because it’s about to be the 90s in Minnesota, baby. This is the period in my life when I first started to understand myself as a writer, and when I first understood that writing might save me. So please, give to 826 Boston, and help awesome teenagers find a way to write themselves through all that angst. Here goes.

“Are you sure they’re asleep?”

“I’m sure. It’s after midnight–they’ve been out for hours.”

Kate and I steal down the stairs, careful not to make too much noise. The carpet in the upstairs hall is good for muffling sound, but the stairs are unreliable, and I don’t know what excuse we could possibly come up with for being in sweatshirts and jeans, carrying our backpacks at 12:30 on a summer night.

The trickiest part is disarming the house alarm before we leave. There’s a telltale beep that sounds on every console, including the one in my parents’ room. We’ve done this loads of times before, so I’m confident we won’t get busted—but not that confident, I guess, since I can feel my heart starting to beat faster already. My mom is always bemoaning her light sleep, the problem must happen closer to dawn than sundown, because this time–between 11:30 and 1AM—is the sweet spot for sneaking out. I’m not worried about my dad waking up on his own–once he quit drinking he stopped snoring like he used to, but he’s still a little deaf, from artillery training, he says. If my mom woke up, though, she’d wake him, and then things would get serious.

We pause for a moment after I enter the code, breath in our throats for an extended beat while we make sure we’re in the clear. How is it that this is both the best and the worst part? I can feel my heart beating in my ears as I wait for thunder of his footsteps down the stairs. What would I do if he found us? Run? Lie? None of these options seem possible, but that just moves the act itself into the realm of the impossible–like we’re superheroes or dragons or something, untouched by human law.

I open the door and am struck by a wave of cool air. It’s May, and my brother will be home from college in a week or so, but the Minnesota winter seems determined to remind us all for as long as possible who’s really in charge here. The first year we lived here, my mother was dumbstruck when it snowed in October, and when it was 19 below on Christmas Day, she became irate. “Why did settlers even stop here? Why would you live somewhere where going outside would kill you?” In the fancy neighborhood in Dallas where she grew up and where her brother was slowly amassing his real estate empire from a house just blocks from her parents, there are horse-drawn carriages that bring people around to look at the Christmas lights. If they tried something like that here, she grimly reminded us the day that school was cancelled because it was “dangerously cold,” the horses would freeze to death before they got to the end of the block.

Kate and I step out into the chill and I quietly shut the door behind us and race up the street. To get to Cub Foods, we walk to the end of our street, head up the brutal hill on Sparrow Road that I still can’t conquer on my bike, and along the frontage road. If it weren’t so swampy behind our house, we could just cut through, but our whole development seems to have been built on a landfill; during the three weeks in April when everything suddenly comes alive again every year, cracks invariably snake through our basement and water seeps up through the floor.

I run down to the end of our block, but I’m out of breath before I get too far, and I stop and wait for Kate to catch up. Since we can be certain we have the streets to ourselves, her stride seems self-assured and easy. Daytime is a whole different story–she’s almost furtive when we’re walking to the bus, wary that Meagan Ward or Stephanie Olson from down the road might come out from behind a tree and ask her where she was able to find jeans that would fit such a fat ass. Or something like that. I’d like to say that I defend her–and maybe I do, some, just by being there as a witness, but I never explicitly step in, except to walk faster and tell her to come on or we’ll be late.

Once we get to the steep, brightly lit incline on Sparrow, there are fewer houses facing us and even a few cars speed by every now and then. We teach each other songs from our language-immersion summer camps (I go to Japanese camp, she to French), and by the time we get to the frontage road, we’ve moved on to the rousing Carly Simon song from Working Girl that is our favorite. I find Melanie Griffith’s transformation in that movie a bit baffling, since the bridge-and-tunnel hairstyle she ditches in her transition to power is the one that the richest, evilest girls at school wear with pride. But I find the idea of an instant and complete change of status intoxicating, as does Kate, judging from the intensity and feeling with which we echo Carly Simon’s call for “all the dreamers to wake the nations.”

After the desolation of the strip-mall parking lot, the blast of air that meets us when we walk through the door makes everything feel shiny and just-for-us. The fluorescent light gleams off the piles of cereal boxes and tuna fish, but Kate and I immediately make a beeline for the candy section. Grocery store candy is weird. You don’t have much selection for individual bars, but your only other choices are bags of a bunch of tiny candy bars–clearly meant for placement in a communal dish for a whole office, not to be hidden in the dusty, airless space behind your headboard. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s no way we’d even be allowed in the section if Mom were here. She’s always steering us toward the Canfield’s diet chocolate cherry cola and nonfat yogurt. “I just want you girls to be happy,” she keeps telling me, “and I know that being so heavy is making your life harder.”

Kate and I are all business as we sort through our options. We can’t get more than we can realistically store, but it has to be enough to last until our next trip. I settle on a bag of mini Butterfingers, and Kate buys fun sized bags of Skittles. I already know how it will go–I’ll burn through my stash in a day or so, but Kate will successfully hoard hers for weeks, and I’ll have to find progressively more creative ways to get it from her–the most reliable one is to make her pay me in candy to play with her—which, miraculously, she always will.

We concoct elaborate role-playing games together: we’re roommates at boarding school, or wizards from the knockoff Tolkien series we’re both obsessed with. It’s a long negotiation to get started—I’m holding all the cards, and I know it, since our standard older/younger sibling dynamic is scaffolded by Kate’s unmentionable loneliness. Once the games begin, though, I lose track of time almost immediately, entirely bound up in this pocket universe we’ve created together—whether we’re bookish preppies or tormented mages, the evil little shitheads who chant “Chic-moose” at us on the bus every morning are gloriously absent.

We leave the sanctified nighttime brightness of the grocery store, and I dash across the parking lot toward home. “Wait up,” Kate yells. I slow down, but I don’t actually stop—she’ll catch up soon enough.

Missives to an Imaginary Dad, or, What Is Prayer without Belief?

When I was twenty-two, I quit drinking and, as instructed by the community I found who seemed to know something about that process, began trying to cultivate some kind of spiritual life. This was hard at first, since I had the hostility to organized religion that is the natural consequence of majoring in Anthropology and unofficially minoring in Women’s Studies. In other words, I’d spent a lot of time thinking very carefully about the ways that organized religion had been fucking up the world for what seemed like forever, and how it showed no sign of stopping anytime soon.

But the inner truth was darker, at least for me. I said I didn’t believe in God when I was in college because only idiots and losers would, right? But at the same time, I was terrified of an idea I’d secretly carried around since I was a kid, that God was the scariest Sky Dad of all time, just biding his time until he could dole out my long-deserved punishment for being too weird, too fat, too thirsty, too much. There was plenty of rhetoric to assist me in that cause floating around in the mid-nineties, especially as the queer movement lurched toward the mainstream. According to talk radio, every thunderstorm was a sign of His Wrath at my dirty lesbianism, and as the months and days counted down toward the millennium, I braced myself for something truly awful.

So when I got sober and started attempting to get my faith to decamp from my unconscious into my conscious mind, that faith was still steeped in a crazy set of ideas about causality. Instead of everything I saw being evidence of how I was in for it once Sky Dad got home, everything was instead proof of Sky Dad’s benevolence. I’d be having a terrible day, torn between curling up under the bed and putting my head in the oven and, miraculously, I’d run into someone I knew from meetings. In a town of thirty thousand people, when I couldn’t leave my house without running into someone I knew. Miracles, everywhere, I’m telling you! Look at what the Lord hath brought unto me!

I didn’t necessarily feel closer to God (whom I was still pretty afraid of), but I did feel like I was part of AA. In the Victorian era, the notion of “muscular Christianity” was really popular (and it still has its poster children—Tim Tebow, Eric Taylor, etc.), and my relationship to prayer felt like that: a sign of how hard-core my addiction had been, how I needed prayer to survive. I would kneel on public bathroom floors in early recovery, feeling that my willingness to expose myself to the muck must be proof of my seriousness. I still find bathrooms an ideal place to pray: you’re on your own, needing something to think about, and poop is the stuff of mortality, after all, reminding us of our own animal nature and tendency toward decay.

The ongoing process of drying out eventually tempered my zealotry, but the habit I carried with me from those first brutal months of my recovery was constant prayer. It turns out that prayer works as a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or at least it does for me. Every time I feel my mind making its way toward one of its unfriendlier byways, I can start reciting all the prayers I’ve memorized, one after another. The Third Step Prayer, the Seventh Step Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, the steps themselves, the Serenity Prayer. If I kept it up, eventually my mind would turn in another direction, less focused (at least for a few minutes) on that moment ten years ago when I did something really embarrassing.

Things went on like this for about six years, and my life slowly improved. Until it didn’t. I’d first shown signs of having ulcerative colitis when I was seventeen, but had kept my terrifying bloody diarrhea as a secret—even, on some level, from myself. When I passed out in the shower one morning, it never even occurred to me to tell my doctor that I’d been bleeding for months. The bleeding felt like it was happening to someone else—the real me was just reaping the benefits of the lowest-effort weight loss plan in history. When I went to college, I started smoking a pack a day and my symptoms disappeared. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that smoking was good for my health, but quitting turned out to be the thing that nearly killed me.

All told, I was in the hospital for about six weeks in the summer of 2005. Two weeks of ever more Herculean efforts to stave off my disease through medicine, two weeks of recovery from surgery and detoxification from that vast pharmaceutical panoply, and then another two weeks in after I got an infection on the site of the surgery. One of the many unexpected and weird things about being hospitalized is how much praying there is. I’ve come to be unsurprised by unsolicited prayers from well-meaning nurses/phlebotomists/what-have-you, but this ecclesiastical energy came from much more unexpected places as well. My hard-left girlfriend at the time, for instance, had a friend in South Africa who asked her church to say a Mass for me.

After my surgery, as I was detoxing from the high-dose steroids they’d been using to treat my colitis, I drifted further and further from reality. When I was first in the hospital, I re-read Pride and Prejudice, feeling comforted by its familiarity and a little smug regarding the Height of my Tastes. But the longer I was there, the less able I became to engage with anything outside the labyrinth of my own anxiety. I convinced myself that I wanted to read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I couldn’t make it past the first few pages. The book just sat on the table next to my bed, taunting me as I lost more and more of my ability to engage with the world. By the time I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, I couldn’t read the clock on the wall anymore, nor could I keep hold of my train of thought for long enough to have a coherent conversation. I was physically healing at a great rate, but my mind was getting progressively worse. Every day, the doctor would give me the same dementia test, and every day I’d fail it and presumably lose my chance to go home. “What month and year is it? I’m going to give you three words to remember: pencil, globe, clock. Spell ‘world’ backwards. Can you tell me the three words?” I could get two, but left the hospital without being able to name the third word.

When things were at their nadir (my PICC line had gotten infected and I had spiked a fever overnight), my mother went to the hospital chapel and prayed to the Virgin Mary, and the next day my condition began to improve. My mom has always been religious, but this was her conversion experience–her house is now covered in angels and little shrines, and she maintains that I was Saved.

For me, the moment worked in the opposite way, though. When faced with what was being described to me as the Miracle of my recovery, all I could think of was the people all around me in the hospital who had received no such miracle. They had people praying for them, too–why would God hear my prayers but not theirs? I couldn’t buy it anymore. It wasn’t that I felt I’d been abandoned by Sky Dad–after all, I’d been saved, and I even made it back to lucidity and was able to enter graduate school the following fall. But when I’d gotten to the end of the line, it was clear to me that the resources I needed to muster were within myself.

My actual survival seemed a lucky fluke of timing–I’d made it to the hospital in time, and was in the care of highly skilled doctors who were able to successfully stitch me up. Making it back to myself was another story entirely. At some point in my hallucinations, I became fixated on the idea that every task or decision before me offered me a kind of test: if I offered my finger up in the right way for the nurse to check my temperature and O2 count, I’d pass, but otherwise I’d fail, and I never knew what the right way was. After about a day of this, I just started opting out of all the “tests,” refusing to do anything because I already knew I’d fail this latest measure of my worth. After a few days (I think–the timing of the whole thing is still pretty fuzzy), I had a dream where the two nurses who were trying to teach me how to care for my stoma and colostomy bag were there, assuring me that there were no tests–that I’d always already been perfectly myself, and that this was all I needed to be.

I know this sounds like a conversion experience (in my dream, the nurses were even all in white), and I suppose it is, of a kind. But what I was being converted to was someone who no longer believed that she had to suffer to prove to her Sky Dad that she deserved to be saved. On the other side of real suffering, it became clear that all my tests of faith were just fabricated opportunities for me to come up short. I didn’t have to prove to anyone that I deserved to get well, or even apologize for getting sick, I just needed to pay attention to the world and people around me.

And yet, while I no longer give credence to the comforting ideas that “everything happens for a reason” or that there’s some Great Consciousness presiding over all my decisions, I still pray, and do it consistently.

But why, really? I know it works as a way to crowbar my thoughts out of well-worn and damaging tracks. “Remember that thing you did in the tenth grade when you looked like a total idiot and made someone else feel awful all in one shot? Jackass. I want you to take the next ten minutes and think about what you’ve done–feel free to make connections to other moral lapses while you’re at it.” Going through my prayer litany is a reliable way to shift my attention away from that, if only for a moment.

I have always thought that the whole point of the spiritual element of AA is as a kind of anodyne to the pathological self-centeredness of the addict. More than other people, addicts need something to put at the center of our thinking–something beyond our own specialness, be it good or bad. A higher power comes to fill that space. Since my illness, my definition of my higher power has shifted to AA itself–I don’t think there’s any Greater Consciousness or Grand Design holding us all together, beyond the structure of the steps and the group of people who have gathered around it. Another way to put this is that it’s the language itself that makes the whole endeavor work. Our responses or interpretations shift, but we share a connection to the central texts, which gives us a common framework through which we understand our experiences.

Of course it’s easy in AA, where, besides the irritating 1930s folksiness of the style and intermittent sexism, I don’t find much to object to in the language. It’s another story entirely in the Christian tradition in which I was raised. I’ve been back to church a few times as an adult, and I always have a similar experience, one in which I’m simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the content of the service. Since I’m almost always going with my parents, the churches are usually in Dallas, so the more problematic elements of Christianity become impossible to ignore. Every Bible verse or prayer that gets read feels like it offers a choice: you can see threads of the Radical Jesuit Priest version of Christianity, where you emphasize nonviolence and charity and social justice, while at the same time the seeds of the George W. Bush version of Christianity and its emphasis on saving people through getting them to see the One True Path is equally present in every word. The act of interpretation itself is the challenge that the language sets before me–am I going to pick up the thread that leads me to connect with other people across difference, or the one that isolates me within a small group?

W himself is a member of the church my parents attended until very recently. I’ve never seen him there, but his smug ghost serves as a stern reminder of the consequences of a specific kind of Christianity, and has kept me from being able to connect with that tradition. But I think the interpretive challenge that Christianity (and all organized religion) offers is central to how and why prayer works for me, even though I don’t think there’s anyone on the other end of the line. When I step into the form of an established prayer (let’s say the Prayer of St. Francis), it shifts my attention, but I also have to make a choice as to where my attention gets shifted. Here’s the text of the prayer as it’s reprinted in the chapter on AA’s eleventh step, for reference:

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace
That where there is hatred, I may bring love
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness
That where there is error, I may bring truth
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith
That where there is despair, I may bring hope
That where there are shadows, I may bring light,
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,
To understand than to be understood
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

So of course I’m put off by the final line, which it seems like the whole prayer is building toward—I can’t even find a metaphorical stand-in for “eternal life” that makes much sense to me, much less gives me any kind of existential comfort. But I love the rhythm of the prayer and the way I can time it with my breathing, and I love how in doing so I shift my attention away from the detritus of my daily life toward the world at large and my place in it. And the act of saying the words to myself is in itself enough to remind me that I’m not alone in the world. Not in the sense that I’m talking to someone, but in the fact that I’m saying words that have been said before, taking an action that’s been taken before, among a potentially endless but always anonymous group of fellow fuckups trying to mend their relationship to the world.

Throughout my dementia at the hospital, my tow line to reality had been the language of AA. My friends brought meetings to my hospital room throughout my time there, and even when I was too out of it to be able to form coherent thoughts in response to the meeting topics (which I remember being weirdly dull–“people pleasing” or “staying in the moment”), I could recite the steps to kick off the meeting, and still knew the words to the third step prayer. My sponsor told me later that this fact deepened her faith in AA like nothing before had done. That even when I was so out to lunch that I was hardly recognizable as myself anymore, I still remained grounded in the central ideas of AA.

The challenge of prayer as someone who doesn’t believe in God is the same for me as the challenge of reading: seeing my incommensurable difference from and distance from the rest of the world even as I’m drawn closer to that world by my recognition of the beauty in it. What I mean is this: part of the joy of reading is the singularity of my experience of a text—when I am moved by a piece of literature, it’s because I recognize something in it, and that moment of recognition is uniquely mine. I can (usually) trust that another reader will take the same basic meaning from the text that I have, but the extra piece, the part that makes it special and shiny (or awful), is all mine. But my challenge as a reader is to keep going, to take the text seriously on its own terms and see what different kinds of beauty or challenges might be there, even if they don’t match my taste, even if they exist alongside things I find distasteful or even destructive. To know that it’s possible for something to be good and bad at the same time, in every sense of the word.

The best example I can think of this came when I went to the weirdest Easter service of my whole life this year with my parents. As I mentioned, they live in Dallas, and they’ve recently switched back to an Episcopal church, but not the High Church of my youth, with its robes and uncomfortable pews and imposing stained glass scenes. While the language of the service is still High Church, the aesthetic is all Southern Megachurch, from the office chairs with optional kneeling cushion to the Johnny-Cash-meets-Journey house band and the television-ready priest with his affable chatter to the giant screens that project the text of the Book of Common Prayer, complete with Christian Rock clip art in the background. At the service, all my standard feelings of alienation were amped up to 11, and when the off-center Helvetica topic of the sermon appeared on the screen as “Are you a believer?” I wanted to raise my hand, give a quick “no,” and hit the road.

I followed along, but mostly just out of habit and good manners, looking for the pause when I could stand up and go get my daughter out of the church’s day care. When I got to the door, they were saying the Rite of Penitence, which is the bit I waited for every week when I went to church as a teenager—you list all the different ways you’ve fallen short in the eyes of God, and then you’re granted blanket forgiveness. As soon as it started, I stood transfixed in the doorway, reading off the giant screen along with all the other penitent megachurchers, reaching back in time to the girl I was, the one who was so convinced that she had “sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what she had done and by what she had left undone.” As I follow the form of the ritual, it’s an opportunity to take my former self seriously, and on her own terms, offering her love and hopefully some kind of relief.

Anatomy of a Binge: Orange is the New Black

As promised, here is my conference paper on Orange is the New Black and how Netflix uses the intimacy of the medium to create a feminist serial. This is the second of four posts I’m writing as part of 826 Boston’s Write-a-thon. Please visit my page and support this amazing organization!

I’m hoping to revise this and try to publish it, so I’d really appreciate any comments/questions.

Television has always had a bit of a chip on its shoulder. From “golden age” shows that performed canonical theatrical works to HBO’s erstwhile slogan “It’s not TV,” television has continually pretended to be something it’s not. For instance, David Chase worked hard to distance The Sopranos from the déclassé taint of television, assuring his audience in interviews that he saw the show as a series of short films, not a television series. David Simon, along with a slew of academics, describes The Wire as “novelistic.” All these strategies demonstrate a deep insecurity about the television series and its place in the larger culture.

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Dickens saw this coming–Thanks to Sean Michael Robinson and Joy DeLyria at Hooded Utilitarian. RTWT here

Perhaps thanks to HBO and its success in creating and branding “Quality Television,” TV has come to gain a great deal of cultural legitimacy over the course of the last ten years, to the point where the New Yorker has a regular television columnist and the newest HBO show to capture the popular imagination, True Detective, stars two film actors, one of which just won an Academy Award for best actor. I’m not sure you can get much more solid middlebrow credentials than an Oscar.

But perhaps the greatest sign of the medium’s cultural legitimacy isn’t the beautifully framed shots of Mad Men or the college courses on The Wire, but the fact that the form now has its own pretenders, courtesy of the internet. The streaming services Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime all feature original programming, which they call “television shows,” and Netflix in particular works hard for these narratives to be seen as equivalent to traditional TV, entering them in contests for Emmys and Golden Globes and listing the series alongside network shows in its library. However, if we define media forms at least in part by their mode of distribution, then these narratives can’t be called television at all. If, as Raymond Williams claims, television is defined by the uninterrupted “flow” from programming to commercial break that discourages viewers from changing the channel, then series from streaming services disrupt the very nature of the form. Netflix series are released all at once, but divided into a series of episodes of roughly equal length, and the shows themselves utilize so many of the formal strategies of television serial narratives that they seem almost parodic. In this way, Netflix forms a kind of fun-house mirror for HBO’s self-aggrandizing claim that “it’s not TV.” While Netflix is, in fact, not television at all, its unspoken slogan seems to be “more TV than TV.”

One place where this doubling down on the televisual quality of narrative is particularly apparent is in Netflix series’ investment in creating a phenomenon of craving in viewers, one that is strangely uncoupled from television’s historical economic motivations for creating suspenseful programming. Netflix series are perhaps best known for their “binge-worthiness,” and the simultaneous release of twelve- and thirteen-hour series leads stars of one Netflix show to make jokes about the others like “There should be a warning halfway through [House of Cards] that is like, ‘Change your underpants.’” This binge-worthiness is largely caused by the centrality of cliffhangers to the narrative’s episodic structure. In a network model, the cliffhanger before a commercial or episodic break worked to ensure that the viewer stayed on the same channel through the advertisements—or the show itself was sponsored by an advertiser, so the viewer’s return to the narrative week after week also promised a specific economic “return.” The simultaneous release of entire series suggests that Netflix doesn’t need readers to “stay put” in this way. Why, then, do its shows look so much like serial television?

Ultimately, I think the answer to this question is about affection. One thing that serial narratives are peerlessly good at is getting their viewers to fall in love with these fictional worlds and imaginary people. I’ve argued elsewhere that the structure of serials, particularly the centrality of the episodic break to the shape of the narrative, is instrumental in forming the obsessive, fannish attention that has characterized the genre from Little Nell to Erica Kane to Laura Palmer.

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It is happening again…

One show that has achieved helped Netflix establish its brand as a provider of addictive television and that has received uniformly positive critical feedback is Orange is the New Black, a darkly comedic fish-out-of-water story of a Smith-educated upper-class WASP who spends a year in a minimum-security prison. The show is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, but parts from its source material by adding a hefty dose of melodrama. Put another way, it changes the memoir into a soap opera, and does so by adopting the central strategies of the serial narrative: episodic structure, suspenseful plotting (especially its reliance on cliffhanger endings), sprawling casts of characters, and melodramatic plotting. Most interestingly, the show shifts its attention away from the violence that so many “Quality TV” shows use to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi of broadcast television. Instead, Orange is the New Black emphasizes the feminine concerns of intimacy, both on the level of plot and in its adoption of the serial tropes that elicit the kind of readerly devotion that leads to binge-viewing.

The show’s most obvious marker of seriality is so obvious that it almost goes without saying: the splitting of the narrative into hour-long episodes. The length of the narrative (roughly thirteen hours) does necessitate splitting it into manageable pieces, but the possibilities of the Netflix platform mean it is possible for episodes to be longer than a typical television episode (for instance, the Sundance series Top of the Lake featured two-hour episodes), or even to widely vary in length. The hour-long format aligns Orange is the New Black with a long history of network television drama, while also opening up the possibility that the episodes will be syndicated on a traditional network.

In his essay “Broken on Purpose,” Sean O’Sullivan argues for the formal importance of the serial gap: the art of the serial, he claims, “calls attention to itself as an array of parts; it is the art of fracture, of separation, and it is the art of the energy required to stitch together those pieces” (59). Netflix Instant’s user interface discourages viewers from lingering too long in these gaps, but the cliffhanger ending of every episode and the signature smash-cut to an orange screen that precedes the end credits highlight the segmented nature of the show, and encourages readers to invest interpretive energy into these serial breaks, even if they only have to wait fifteen seconds before the next episode begins to autoplay. The break signifies the kind of fannish attention that leads to “water cooler” buzz, even though the actual reader doesn’t have time to walk to the sink for a glass of water before the next episode begins. In this way, viewers get all the anticipatory pleasure with none of the pain of waiting. For this viewer, at least, the recurrence of the floating “Netflix Original Series” title card kicks off the same pleasure center  associated with “the next one” in any binge (a new pack of cigarettes, a piece of candy, a game of computer solitaire): the sneaky voice in my head that tells me “just one more.”

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I just can’t help myself

While the cliffhanger plots and flashback structure acknowledges the influence of the groundbreakingly “addictive” serial show Lost, the show’s reliance on melodrama and coincidence gestures further back to the daytime soap. This can be seen most clearly in the central relationship between Piper and Alex Vause, her former lover and the woman who named her to the FBI—who just happens to be housed in the same facility. In Kerman’s memoir, she does end up rooming with the Alex character, but only when they’re transported to another facility, waiting to testify at the same trial; Kerman describes her as a “fireplug” with a “French bulldog face”—a far cry from veritable glamazon Laura Prepon. In the show, Alex’s presence at Litchfield is played for full melodramatic effect, and her initial confrontation of Piper is the shocking final image of the first episode, enticing the reader to come back for more.

The show’s reliance on melodrama is most apparent, however, in the story of Daya, an inmate who arrives the same day as Piper. Upon arrival, she discovers that her mother is also a prisoner there, and their initial meeting is highly dramatized, with her mother slapping her across the face and stomping away wordlessly. Daya’s romance with the prison guard Bennett is soapiest of all: the sentimental piano cues theme that accompanies every one of their scenes together encourages us to see their connection as a star-crossed romance instead of rape (which is what it really is, given that Daya is structurally incapable of giving consent).

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There’s a long history in soaps of confusing rape with romance

The show also demonstrates its debt to soaps through its combination of multiple overlapping plots, all of which prioritize connection and relationality over power struggles. Alex and Piper, for instance, are only interested in each other, not in influence over other inmates. Prison cook Red seems like she might be an exception to this rule, but when her position of relative power is taken away, it’s clear immediately that any power she might have had was always contingent on the whims of the people above her in the hierarchical structure of the prison system. Furthermore, the narrative emphasis of her story is on her relationships with Nichols and her other prison “children.”

Melodramatic plotting is not the only story element that aligns Orange is the New Black with the soap; it also relies heavily on “stock characters,” or, in the immortal words of Maury Kind, the show’s Ira Glass stand-in, “prison tropes.” One of the most striking elements of the backstories we get is how violent so many of them are (at least three of the inmates we meet seem to be in for—or at least to have committed—murder). This stands in fairly stark contrast to the fact that non-violent offenders make up the vast majority of prisoners in actual minimum-security facilities (Orange is the New Black, 132). With this shift, the show loses the preoccupation with exposing the realities of prison life that so thoroughly motivates Kerman’s memoir.

When Larry is interviewed on NPR and relays Piper’s stories about all the “wacky inmates” she has met, however, the implications of relying on “prison tropes” to understand the story is turned back on the viewer. We see the “real” characters behind these tropes being devastated by Piper’s descriptions of them, and the show is thus able to problematize its reliance on the “fish-out-of-water” framework more successfully than the book ever could. For reasons clearly illustrated by Larry’s jackassery on NPR, Kerman is rightfully concerned in the memoir about the implications of her words on the real women with whom she was incarcerated—she thus goes to great lengths to present them in the best possible light, and to keep the reader’s focus on points of identification with all the prisoners, while also acknowledging her own position of privilege throughout.

But of course, it’s a double bind for Kerman—the greater lengths she goes to so she can respectfully present an insistently dehumanized population, the better she looks as an author and narrator, reifying her position of privilege in the narrative. With its thoroughly fictionalized characters, the show faces no such conundrum, and uses the structural device of shifting perspective not only to give agency to the other characters, but to trouble the reader’s potential identification with Piper. Show runner Jenji Kohan was frank in an NPR interview that Piper was her “Trojan Horse”: “you’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latino women and old women and criminals. But you take this white girl, this fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all those other stories.” (NPR, Fresh Air, August 13, 2013).

The series may use Piper’s privilege as a way to draw viewers in, but by the end of the first season, it’s clear that Piper is in many ways worse than any of her fellow inmates. After Larry’s disastrous interview and a final confrontation with Alex where she is called out for playing Alex and Larry off each other for the entire season, it’s clear that Piper is, in her own words, “a selfish, manipulative, narcissist.” The final shot of the season uses the visual language of the horror genre to frame her as a monster: she’s shot from below as she’s mercilessly beating her fellow inmate Pennsatuckey.

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Piper is a vampire

Part of the reason that this final scene stands out so much is that Orange is the New Black otherwise shies away from depictions of violence. As I mentioned, there are unrealistically violent backstories that bring the women to Litchfield, but Piper’s early fears of getting shivved by her roommate are held up as an example of her problematic reliance on stereotypes, not reality. Pennsatuckey’s attack on Piper in the showers in the final episode is chilling, but that is partly true because it is so jarring. The show’s relative nonviolence is particularly clear when it is compared to other self-consciously “quality” television. In what might be the best-titled piece of academic criticism of all time, Brian Ott argues in his essay “Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits” that HBO uses explicit content, particularly profanity, nudity, and violence “as a way to position itself outside televisual normativity” (125). Violence, especially shocking moments of violence, has become one of the key signifiers of cinematic “quality” on cable dramas: whether it’s Tony Soprano garroting an FBI stoolie, a bathtub and decomposing body crashing through the ceiling in Breaking Bad, or a ritually posed murder victim in True Detective, intensely violent scenes demonstrate the lengths to which cable dramas are willing to go.

Orange is the New Black is also invested in a discourse of exceptionalism, but the gender and racial politics of its methods of distinguishing itself from its predecessors is notably different. The show’s Netflix home is linked to Piper’s effectiveness as a “Trojan horse”—much has been made of the freedom granted to showrunners at Netflix. Orange is the New Black was picked up for a full thirteen-episode season immediately, without the pressure of making a pilot first. In this way, Kohan had the freedom to shift the series’ attention to these background players without worrying about this decision being blamed for any possible dip in the show’s weekly ratings.

But if there’s a move that most parallels the early “distinguishing” scenes of violence that I mention earlier, it’s Orange is the New Black’s interest in toilets. Seriously, never in my life have I seen so many women peeing in a television series or a film. The series begins in a bathroom, as Piper is rushing through her first prison shower, and the first flashback scene features her sitting on the toilet and weeping the night before she leaves for Litchfield. The bathroom is a central plot location as well—the site of sex scenes between Nichols and Merullo as well as Piper and Alex, and Piper’s quest to find a time to use the toilet alone is a running thread throughout the season. When Piper rejects Suzanne’s romantic advances, Suzanne responds by peeing on the floor outside Piper’s bunk. Suzanne’s response is aggressive, but it’s an aggression based on blurring the boundaries of privacy, not on the threat of physical harm. Even the violence from the guards occurs in the register of intimacy—not just the nonconsensual sex enacted by prison guards Pornstache and Bennett, but one of Pornstache’s most chilling moment of violence and intimidation is when he pisses in the Thanksgiving gravy, reminding Red that any sense of power she might have over her kitchen and the prison more generally is an illusion.

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So. Much. Peeing.

Perhaps the most famous way that intimacy trumps violence in the show is in the fate of the misplaced screwdriver that causes the prison to go on lockdown. The reader is led to believe that Big Boo, the butch lesbian “prison trope” has taken it so that she might harm a romantic rival, but the punch line of the episode is that she is instead using it to masturbate. Like Chekov’s gun, it reappears in the final episode as a weapon in Piper’s confrontation with Pennsatuckey after all, but there’s no violent payoff to its appearance, as Pennsatuckey easily bats it away from Piper during their fight. The episode ends in violence, but this an exception rather than a rule, and Piper’s role as a stand-in for the reader is deeply problematized when she’s shown to be, in many ways, more dangerous than any of the other inmates. When the officious guard Healy turns his back on Piper’s cries for help as Pennsatuckey threatens her, we’re encouraged to fear for her safety—but the truth is it’s Piper herself, with all her access to racial and economic privilege, who is the real threat. Her violence aligns her with the unjust and violent system that has kept these other women down and accorded her so much unearned privilege. In contrast to the way we’re encouraged, at least on some level, to be charmed by Tony’s code of honor or goggle at Walt’s ingenuity, nothing about Piper’s violence is coded as admirable.

In Legitimating Television, Michael Newman and Elana Levine argues that the methods by which television has claimed cultural capital are rooted in patriarchal value judgments. Television is an effeminate medium: domestic, daily, rooted in the small concerns of everyday life. As the form gained cultural legitimacy, it did so by disassociating itself from these effeminate concerns. Show after show focused on flawed antiheroes finding different ways to deal with the implications of patriarchal power. At the same time, these shows made claims for “quality” by adopting formal strategies that distanced themselves from the history of the form, aligning themselves with the more masculine (and thus more legitimate) forms of films and novels. With its insistent reliance on the formal tropes of television, combined with a narrative emphasis on intimacy and melodrama, Orange is the New Black has embraced the effeminate form of television, and this embrace has enabled the show to break from the overweening masculinist concerns of most “Quality Television” and follow through on the feminist promise of the serial form, particularly in its focus on the ongoing costs of the prison-industrial complex and its commitment to representing queer women and women of color as complicated, realistic characters.

 

 

Who do you think you are?

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was one of those girls who wrote poems about her period. Not that I ever had the organizational acumen to track my cycle, but starting when I was about seventeen, I was drunk on the power signified by this painless blood. I could make something with my body. Another person. I didn’t want to, not yet, but I could, and there was something heady about that potential.

At the same time, there was other blood I was less interested in thinking about the meaning of. I started displaying symptoms of ulcerative colitis around when I was seventeen as well–blood in my stool, mainly, and unexplained weight loss. I never told anyone about the blood, not even when I had an emergency visit to the doctor because I’d started missing my period and had fainted in the shower (retrospectively, I know that I must have been extremely anemic, a symptom that returned later). I assumed the weight loss was the result of a mixture of luck and unknown reserves of self-control, and that was that. Once I went to college, I started smoking in earnest and the negative effects of nicotine on my immune system caused my colitis symptoms to disappear, even from my memory. (Fun fact! Some doctors use the Patch to treat ulcerative colitis. Since it’s an autoimmune disorder, the way that smoking compromises your immune system actually works in your favor. You still stink and have yellow teeth, but Smoking Saves Lives!) My denial was so successful that it wasn’t until I started having symptoms again in my twenties that I even remembered this previous bout of unexplained bleeding.

When the symptoms did come back, they did so in earnest, and I got progressively sicker until I was hospitalized, and ultimately had to have my colon removed. When listing potential side effects of the procedure, the doctor mentioned that abdominal surgery would negatively affect my ability to get pregnant, but I felt (accurately, it turns out) that I didn’t have a real choice in the matter. They had long since moved beyond the standard anti-inflammatory meds, and I was receiving intravenous steroids, which weren’t working at all besides making me manic and deeply self-loathing. The next medical step would be another IV treatment, one that resembled chemo in that I’d get weekly or biweekly injections. Into veins so small that each IV and blood draw demanded that a special expert be called into my room.

The warning about fertility was scary, but not as scary as dying, which seemed to be my other choice. And lo and behold, when they did remove my colon, the doctors said it was about to rupture. At one point during my recovery, I ran into a friend who worked in the hospital lab, and he said that he’d seen my name on a tissue sample. My colon was so thin, he told me, it looked like cellophane.

So when I decided to try to get pregnant after all, it was always couched in the language of risk. I had a series of conversations with different doctors in different clean, blue-lit rooms, each with a different focus, but all with the same message: I should start right with IVF, since I already had the credentials to get infertility treatment covered by insurance; here is a long list of the medications (including my psych meds) that I would no longer be able to take if I got pregnant; the good news is that pregnancy often sends colitis into remission–oh, but that probably doesn’t apply to you since you had your colon removed. And so on.

But I still wanted it. Ariel had carried our two-year-old, and I’d at first decided I just wouldn’t try at all; that it would be too much trouble. But I was sick of giving up on things. I’d given up on finding a faculty job in English before I’d even started looking for one–there were hardly any jobs in my field, and certainly none in Boston. I was slowly settling into this new direction in life, but not without relentless regret and second-guessing. And my new job focused on helping students go after opportunities that were just at the razor’s edge of their reach: a Rhodes scholarship, a Fulbright fellowship. Even for the smartest, most qualified students, odds are they’re not going to get it. And I realized, more and more, that I’d never really pursued anything I didn’t already know on some level that I was going to get. When I was in the seventh grade, I got a D in shop because I just stopped working after I made a car that rivaled “the Homer” for impracticality. I walked the mile race in gym class, claiming that I was protesting the fact that I had to take gym when the truth was that I didn’t want to reveal to anyone (including myself) how slow I really was. Better to opt out, since the possibility of winning always remains off in the imaginary. If I really wanted to run a marathon/ climb a mountain/ write a novel, I could–I just choose not to. From graduate school to relationships, I’d only taken risks when I knew I’d succeed.

When I decided to take this risk and started inseminating, I somehow convinced myself that the best course of action was just to believe that I was pregnant. The worst that could happen would be that I was wrong, right? Wrong. Because it turns out that the belief that you’re pregnant is maybe the worst part of trying to get pregnant. Every month, when the infamous two-week-wait came to a bloody halt, all I could think was how I’d failed–again. And the voice in my head (who, frankly, isn’t great company even on a good day) took on a relentless, cutting edge. “Who do you think you are, anyway? Did you really think this was possible? For you? After everything? Idiot.” And so on. After six months, one attempt to get off psych meds, and the emotional clusterfuck that is hormone treatment, I was done. Was I capitulating to this voice by “giving up” so early? Maybe, but I think (as with most things) that there’s another, less brutal, side to the interrogation “Who do you think you are?”

Because the truth is that nothing has made me rethink who I thought I was like my path to being a parent. I had a really specific idea of what it meant to be a mother, one that was intrinsically tied to carrying a baby: I’d be this endlessly providing earth mother who breastfed her babies until they were four and made homemade organic food and somehow found time for endless fun crafty adventures with my kids while at the same time working on my own creative and community projects AND serving as a de facto mom for lonely neighborhood kids and whatever other fantasies I’d unknowingly hauled around about repeating-with-a-difference the choices and circumstances of my own mother. Being the non-gestational parent forced some distance between me and my fantasy of motherhood, and opened up unexpected rewards.

For instance, one of the things I’d always been most drawn to, in an old-fashioned feminist way, about motherhood was the way it disrupts the boundaries between the self and the other. The gestating parent and the newborn are distinct beings, but also not–and my mother reminds me of this endlessly, with comments like “I made you–you’re a piece of me, like my arm.” This idea of porous boundaries between distinct people (the mother and the child) is fascinating to me, but also terrifying, especially given how much I have struggled with self-loathing in my life. I love Izzy in the endlessly expansive fashion of all parents, but I don’t feel like she’s me, and this frees me up to take her on her own terms.

The thought, “who do you think you are?” feels fucking awful when I’m having it: shaming and self-defeating. But at the same time, there’s the possibility for liberation in it. Who do I think I am to be a mother, anyway? As a seventies-style femme, I always thought I knew: I was fucking Gaia, and I’d have a million babies and feed them all from my bounteous bosom. Turns out, I’m something else altogether, and since I don’t have an established roadmap, I can figure it out as I go. I can’t rely on my body to do what I thought it would, but that’s opened up my definition of motherhood, and made it limitless.

Demons: Illness, real and imagined

I don’t know if this is a universal thing for people who have experienced life-threatening illness, but I am a crazy hypochondriac. Case in point: a few days ago, I cancelled plans for the next morning because I was deeply convinced that I would get the norovirus that night. What was my basis, you ask? Mostly I was just tired, but I had a sense of generalized foreboding I couldn’t shake. The nervousness that I’m going to be sick ties my stomach in knots and exhausts me, and then I’ve got even more symptoms. Real or imagined? You tell me.

The last time I was in the hospital was about two years ago, when I had the norovirus–it was the same night that my sister-in-law had her first serious brush with death from the cancer that would kill her a few months later. I had no idea what to do with my reactions to the situation. We’d never been close, and with her designer handbags and catered toddler birthday parties, she reminded me strongly of the girls who’d terrorized me all through middle school. But she was beloved by my brother and his two girls. Besides which, she’d originally been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and it was its cousin, ulcerative colitis, that had nearly killed me in 2005, so beyond my concern for her, my brother, and the girls, I was drawn to the details of her illness in that way that only the traumatized can be. If I hadn’t had my colon removed, it’s all too likely that my story could have gone the same way.

So when the heartbreaking email came from my brother describing her swift decline, I couldn’t really process my emotions–the only option seemed to be to hang out with my Old-Fashioned Bestie and get fatty takeout and watch a Disney movie. If I relied on the coping strategies of my childhood, these grown-up demons wouldn’t have a chance, right? I had my first (and, to date, only) steak and cheese sub and we watched Tangled (sucked).

Later that evening, we got another email from my brother–my sister-in-law had been put on a ventilator, and I assumed that she would die that night. Soon after, I started getting stabbing pains in my gut, but I assumed they were psychosomatic, that my fear and sadness had pushed their way from my mind into the site of trauma itself, the former stomping grounds of my dear departed colon. I was almost relieved when I started throwing up, because at least this meant I wasn’t making it all up.

Once I got to the hospital, though, I wasn’t relieved anymore. The thing I’d forgotten about being sick, like seriously, hospital-admitted sick, is how much I feel personally (even morally) responsible for the way that my body is failing to do what it’s supposed to. Not only do I have this crazy cyborg organ that ER nurses have never heard of (a j-pouch instead of a colon), but my veins are so small and flat that every time I have to get an IV they have to send the special pro phlebotomist in to administer it. And when I am dehydrated on top of that, forget it. I find myself apologizing again and again to everyone there: the nurses, for having to deal with my recalcitrant veins, my partner for how worried I can see she is, my students for missing scheduled appointments, my best friend for foisting my daughter on her. And so on.

Hyper-vigilance is one of the symptoms of PTSD, and it’s the one I’ve always been loath to let go of. A few years ago, I was doing a regular meditation practice where you go through your body and say a series of statements/affirmations/whatever for each chakra. For the first chakra, the one at your feet, one of the statements was “the world is a safe place.” And from the beginning, I felt the need to call bullshit on that one. It seemed frankly delusional. I’d never wanted for food or a roof over my head or been threatened with murder–my life was easier than that of many people the world over, and even I knew better than to think the world was safe. Best to prepare, if you can.

But here’s the funny thing. I can’t really do anything to prepare for being sick beyond what I’ve already done. Based on the experience I’ve just described, I know that if I do have to be hospitalized for some reason, I have a series of clearly delineated steps I can take to deal with it: we’ve got people who can take my daughter at a moment’s notice; I have total faith that my partner will be at my side and can show up in a crisis; I live in a city with the greatest hospital system in the US, and I’m lucky enough to have decent health insurance. And maybe this is what “the world is a safe place” really means–not that I’m protected from pain and even death, but that there are tools out there that will help me through those experiences. A community, an action plan in case of emergency–connections that ensure that my terror will be met with love.

They didn’t let me leave the hospital until well after my symptoms had resolved (something I didn’t think still happened under neoliberal health care, but whaddaya know), and my final day at MGH was wretchedly boring. I didn’t have anything to read or do, and being sick always kicks my superego into high gear, so I hate watching TV. The friends who came to see me were those with their own evidence that the world is none too safe, and one of them gave me the best massage I’ve ever had. I’d been on full quarantine up to that point, and this experience of basic human contact brought me back to earth. I might not be safe, but I’d always be cared for.

Queering the Marriage Plot

My little sister got married on Labor Day weekend.

When I teach introductory composition, one of the first things we talk about is how to write a successful lead, and my favorite strategy is to shock your reader (personal favorite first line? “Ah, menarche.”). To be clear, that’s what I’m trying to do with this opening line.

My little sister got married on Labor Day weekend. My sister, who once considered opening an S&M-themed Bed and Breakfast (gourmet kitchen upstairs, dungeon in the basement). Who turned down a spot on a reality TV show because it meant she would likely have to tone down her personal life. Who shut down my Republican parents’ endless questions about what she wanted to do with her life with the following plan: “I’d like to open a bondage and leather boutique. But you know, a nice place.” (For the record, this was in 1999–if only she’d gone for it!). So it’s safe to say that I’d just assumed that the dyadic, heteronormative vibe of marriage wouldn’t be part of her plan. She’s been in a committed relationship for almost exactly as long as my Lady and I have been, but she and her partner haven’t matched our progress toward suburban homeownership and baby-making, opting instead to host fabulous dinners and sprawling parties that have apparently become a Queer Minneapolis institution. My partner and I are lesbians, but my sister is seriously queer.

Part of what comes with this is a deep devotion to clear and honest communication. Since she spends so much time negotiating issues of consent, she’s extremely committed to expressing that consent (or lack thereof) as clearly as possible and making sure that she has yours. Negotiations over where to go for dinner often include a lot of “thanks for being so clear about what you want” and “So-and-so is vegan, while Otherperson is locavore, so we should be sure to consider their needs when we’re making this decision.” Etc. It’s a little exhausting to pay so much attention during every conversation, but it’s also kind of exhilarating, like emotional Crossfit.

So I didn’t know quite what to expect as we prepared for the weekend. Attendance from our side of the family was pretty thin–one group of cousins had a long long way to travel, and the others were stymied by their born-again status. She’d booked a family camp for the weekend–it reminded me of the place they stay in Dirty Dancing, complete with canoes and and old-fashioned pinball machine and a big lodge where everyone could eat together (if only we had a Borscht Belt comic to entertain us!). But once the guests started arriving, the vibe shifted pretty quickly to something between artists’ retreat, radical circus, and therapeutic retreat. Guests fell into one of several camps: fancy politician-types (my parents and my brother’s family), small-town het families (my sister’s new in-laws, who arrived in thickly accented droves), softball dykes, and super-tattooed-and-pierced Serious Queers. What almost everyone had in common (at least among the non-familial guests) was the emotional intensity that goes along with having experienced Great Suffering.

Which makes sense, since my sister knows from suffering. Middle school and high school are hard for everyone, but not like they were hard for her. Every school has a kid who’s the ultimate in abjection, about whom rumors swirl that get more and more unrealistic. I didn’t hear any of the rumors about her, but I can only imagine that they ranged from lesbianism (natch) to devil worship. I hope that the kind of bullying she experienced might be less common these days, but without an internet to find other freaks, my sister was profoundly isolated though her early teen years. Even her teachers seemed to be on board, allowing her to opt out of math class her junior year based on what I can only think was the assumption that she wasn’t college-bound. Suburban Minneapolis in the early nineties wasn’t kind to curvy girls who were obsessed with dragons. While her classmates were busy trying to out-Brenda-Walsh each other, she was hiding in the bathroom carving up her arms.

So contrast that girl with the version of my sister that emerged during the ceremony. When I got married, I was terrified. Not of being married–I was excited to link my life story with my Lady’s, and we’d already been living together for years–but of the scrutiny of the crowd, which felt unbearable. My sister, on the other hand, was positively schticky. From the moment she made it to the front of the crowd, she kept cutting up–winking at people, interrupting her own vows for a brief sidebar with the audience (because that’s what we were). Another couple, with whom she and her Broom (for bride/groom) have set up a kind of queer familial collective, performed the ceremony, and it was just the four of them on stage the whole time, reveling in the outpouring of love and positive attention.

It was incredible.

One of the big arguments against gay marriage is that it’s just part of an attempt to cover over the shame that comes with unrequited love and familial rejection, to say, “no, no, I was just like you all along! My sexual acts might be different, but my love for my family is just the same!” This is both true and untrue, I think–I mean, I don’t really know what the ins and outs (as it were) of a heterosexual relationship are like since I haven’t been in one since high school, but I know from my shared experience of parenting that the dynamics of my family are not all that different from those of my straight friends. Except that I’m not constantly second-guessing my own motives vis-a-vis patriarchy the way I have the few times I’ve attempted to date guys. A friend of mine described her lesbian marriage as being like “a slumber party every night,” and that’s pretty close to how I feel about it. Maybe this is how straight couples feel too, I don’t know. But the surface of my marriage is mainstream enough that it’s easy to project common experiences onto it. The further you get from the mainstream, the less true this is. My sister’s relationship, for instance, doesn’t have these square outlines that can be easily traced onto conventional marriage, what with her insistence on publicly prioritizing her sex life and maintaining such fluid boundaries around the definition of both family and coupledom. Married or not, they’ll never be mistaken for middle-of-the-road.

And the weekend reflected this. They made little booklets describing all the events (complete with mission statement), and my favorite part of this document was the description of the reception: “Family-friendly until 10:30.” This moment was a metonym for the whole weekend–they refused to hide who they were (pretty much immediately at 10:30, the party featured a lot more skin, burlesque, and lapdances), but they put the responsibility of facing difference squarely on the shoulders of the people who might be made uncomfortable by that difference. And the best part of it all (besides seeing about 30 super-hot butches serenading my little sister) was how surprised I was by the results. My parents and my older brother made a beeline for the door pretty much immediately (no surprise there), but my new in-laws, all of whom hail from the same tiny Minnesotan town, stayed for the duration. One brother-in-law had taken on the responsibility of videographer, and my favorite moment was when he checked in with the Broom to see if she wanted him to “edit out the raunchy stuff” for future generations. She laughed and said no, that people could fast-forward if they were uncomfortable. So he kept recording, and was this towering, affable, corn-fed presence the whole night, right in the middle of the action.

The seduction of assimilation, for me, is always in the interest of relationships. I don’t want to lose relationships, so I’ll “tone down” elements of my personality that I fear will alienate the people I love (usually, but not always, my family). But the further you get from the norm, the greater sacrifice is required by this toning-down process. The most heartbreaking effect of the experience of bullying and alienation (whether it’s abuse at home or the kind of systemic violence that characterized my sister’s experience of middle school) is how we can become convinced that if we were only a little thinner, a little funnier, a little quieter, a little better, then we would be out of danger. The wedding exposed the lie of that belief for me, more fully than it ever has been before. Instead of shifting her behavior so the weekend would be more recognizable as a “wedding,” she just changed the rules and lovingly assured people they we’re welcome to leave at any time. The whole thing left me with the hope that there’s a viable middle ground between the self-abandonment of assimilation and the interpersonal cost of going fully “off the grid” of mainstream culture. That, given a loving community and a commitment to radical honesty, it is possible to change an institution to make it truly your own.

The horrors of power

So here’s the video that blew up my Facebook feed a few days ago, first with a long paean from Jezebel, then (more convincingly) a series of critiques of the way she uses Black women’s bodies as a punchline for a joke about objectification.

The video is disheartening on so many levels–the potential is there for something really smart and pretty radical. The opening scene with the liposuction is funny but upsetting at the same time–the producer’s line, “I don’t know how someone can let themselves get like this” seems like it was probably lifted directly from Allen’s real life, the shot of the fat getting squirted into the big plastic cylinder is creepy and awesome, and her tiny-voiced, almost-cowed response that she’s had two kids makes the moment when she stands up off the table feel that much more triumphant. And I’m pretty sure I can’t think of anything more punk rock than this image:

But then there’s this image:

And these:

It’s clear that she’s purposely going over the top here, parodying other pop stars (mostly everyone’s favorite punching bag, Miley Cyrus), but reproducing a power dynamic (clothed, tightly controlled White body, half-naked writhing Black bodies) doesn’t constitute parody–it’s just more of the same.

Anyway. I could go into more detail about the ways that Allen plays into long-established patterns of White feminist appropriation of Black women, but that argument is easy to find. What’s more interesting to me is the way that Allen’s not-apology for the video highlights her own pretty tortured relationship with her body in a way that exposes the place of self-loathing in oppression.

Allen’s statement goes through most of the standard moves of a not-apology from a member of a dominant group:

  1. I wasn’t thinking about race: “If anyone thinks for a second that I requested specific ethnicities for the video, they’re wrong.”
  2. It’s just a joke, get over it: “Whilst I don’t want to offend anyone. I do strive to provoke thought and conversation. The video is meant to be a lighthearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern pop culture. It has nothing to do with race, at all.”
  3. My Black friends are fine with this: “Ask the ladies yourselves @shalaeuroasia @monique_Lawz @ceodancers @TempleArtist@SelizaShowtime @melycrisp
  4. I’m not racist: “I’m not going to apologise because I think that would imply that I’m guilty of something, but I promise you this, in no way do I feel superior to anyone, except paedophiles, rapists murderers etc., and I would not only be surprised but deeply saddened if I thought anyone came away from that video feeling taken advantage of,or compromised in any way.”

But the one that gets me the most is this:  If I could dance like the ladies can, it would have been my arse on your screens; I actually rehearsed for two weeks trying to perfect my twerk, but failed miserably. If I was a little braver, I would have been wearing a bikini too, but I do not and I have chronic cellulite, which nobody wants to see. What I’m trying to say is that me being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day.

It’s the inward focus of her creative process that is most interesting to me, especially since the harm inflicted by this process are so externally focused. For the most part, I tend to think of oppression as something outwardly focused–x or y group is linked to a specific set of characteristics, probably on some unconscious level, so people use those bodies to fulfill some kind of archetype (the Mammy, or the Dragon Lady, or the Thug, or the Terrorist–the list goes on and on). It’s like how when we go visit my family in Texas, people seem unable to understand that my partner eats pork, even though she’s Jewish. The job of dismantling racist thought patterns then begins with breaking down those associations and seeing the multiplicity of human experience more fully.

But what Allen does in her apology exposes some of the inner workings of objectification in a way that highlights the way that in the case of this video (and maybe all the time) racism is immediately linked to self-loathing. The frame story of the video as well as the language of her apology both showcase this sense of horror: as I mentioned, the lipo scene is so effective because it’s so gross, and thus captures a core element of that sense of being alienated from your body that is so central to oppression around race and gender both. And, of course, Allen’s own comment, “nobody wants to see that” is hardly different from the record exec’s disgusted question, “How can somebody let themselves get like this?”

It’s the one-to-one link between the fears expressed here–that her body needs to be sexualized in order to be marketable, but that the effects of that sexualization (the changes to a woman’s body after childbirth) are precisely what makes her body disgusting–that then get played out on the bodies of the backup dancers, especially in the shots of their jiggling asses. While Allen’s cellulite is something no one wants to see, the jiggling flesh of her backup dancers is the image she’s trading on to reassure her audience that this is parody–that she’s “playing on” racism, not reproducing it.

At the end of the day, what all this has me thinking is that perhaps the focus needs to change in terms of anti-racist work, in a way that follows through on the logic of nightmares and horror movies more closely, really taking seriously the place of abjection within the construction of racist paradigms. The moments in the video that follow through on its radical (and artistically interesting) potential are the moments when Allen allows herself to play out the horror she feels at her own body and how it’s changed–the squirting fat, the Baggy Pussy. If we people in positions of relative power (I’m thinking primarily of my fellow white ladies here) do our best to articulate these fears of abjection as they relate to ourselves, we can both make more interesting art but also at least begin to dismantle the structures that keep us all down, since throwing other women under the bus of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy never ends well.