One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Waking into Darkness

When I was seventeen, I was sick with ulcerative colitis, but I never told anyone, not even when I went to the doctor because I was so sick that I started missing my period. I’d been shitting blood for over a year. I never got a direct question about it, so I was able to keep it cordoned away in my mind, sealed off from the rest of my life. Once, I was at a friend’s house and the toilet was broken, but I didn’t realize this until after I’d filled it with bloody diarrhea. I stayed in the room with my hand on the flusher, watching the water spiral and slowly, slowly dissipate for at least 15 minutes. My heart was beating too fast to think anything; I just knew I couldn’t leave that room until all the evidence was gone.

Like most other white people I know, the strongest feeling I had on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was shock. How could this have happened? How could we all (even Trump himself) have been so wrong? But my teenaged experience of disease should have been my guide. The consequences of having an illness that deep were unthinkable to me at the time, and I didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the possibility, so my mind just shut it down. Along the same lines, the truth of how the American experiment is predicated on human suffering was too much. I’ve spent much of my life and my career working on the presumption that if I listen compassionately to people in power, they’ll do the same for me. This election has exposed that strategy as misguided, and based in my own refusal to admit not just how endangered I am by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but how implicated I am by and in it.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was head legal counsel for Southeastern Drilling Company in Texas. On my dad’s side I’m directly descended from the people who first brought the cotton trade–and thus slavery on a grand scale–to Texas. My life–my particular life, here in this condo in Arlington, MA–was made possible by human suffering and environmental pillage.

In the past, whenever I’ve tried to look at my heritage, it’s been hard to see it clearly. It’s like the weight of the past changes the laws of physics, and the light around these facts gets bendy and distorted. I become overwhelmed by guilt, unable to see my way through it. It’s too much dirt for just one person to undo, and it’s infected everything.

On Wednesday morning, the first person I saw was a former professor, Christina Sharpe, who’d just gotten the first copies of her new book, which focuses on the idea of the “wake”–both how history works like the wake of the slave ships of the Middle Passage and the process of coming to consciousness. She was so kind to me–hugged me while I wept, and responded with patient honesty when I keened of how I had been “so sure” it would go the other way.

“I wasn’t surprised,” she told me. “Other people underestimated white supremacy, but not me.” Listen to Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, she told me. Don’t worry about whether speaking out will get put my name on a list–it probably will, but being ruled by fear doesn’t actually increase one’s chances for survival. This is the same fight which has been underway since this country started. Later that week, one of my Black students put it differently. “That feeling you’re having?” he said, “That’s how I feel all the time.”

I’ve been up since 3, gripped by fear. The first thing I did once I resigned myself to being awake was read my favorite pop culture website, figuring I’d give myself a break before approaching the news–but I’m not even safe there. Sharon Jones is dead. Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn was defaced by swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti.This feels like end times, I can’t lie.

But it’s felt like end times for lots of people in this country for ages, that’s the thing I’m only realizing now. And maybe it is–Trump’s relationship with the EPA certainly doesn’t make me feel confident for the future of this little planet. But people have made art and raised kids and been kind and made meaning out of their lives even from the darkest points in history.

So here’s my pledge: I’m done lying. I’m done covering up the effects of abuse and violence in my personal life, and I’m done playing nice with systems of power–even, especially the ones that I benefit from.

So I’m telling the truth to my students–that I’m terrified, that I’m committed to social justice, that I want to help them find tools to speak truth to power. I’m being frank with my family about the small violences that made growing up queer so hard. I’m here, writing.

And I’m doing my best to divest from whiteness. We’re giving away more money than we ever have, by an order of magnitude. I’m keeping race central to discussions about the election with other white people. I’m using the phrase white supremacy with other white people–even ones in whom I’ve observed subtle racism in the past. I’m wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and hanging an Unafraid Educator sign on my office door, because these are the signs that come from within the communities they’re meant to support (unlike safety pins, which white people came up with).

There’s so much work to be done. Too much, maybe. I can see the ways that hatred and fear shape human behavior–and Steve Bannon assures me that this isn’t going away anytime soon. But I’m done lying–my commitment (and that of other nice white people like me) to covering over uncomfortable truths is part of what got us into this mess.

My life has been shaped by violence, and this is something I never wanted to be true. The weight of it felt unbearable. But if I tell the truth, I think I can bear it. When I was finally willing to tell the truth about my illness, I nearly died. I had to have emergency surgery to have my colon removed, and my life changed permanently. But I didn’t die, and the only reason that’s true is because I faced up to what all that blood really meant, and dealt with the consequences as best I could. So no more lying.

Template for a letter to your family re: Steve Bannon

I did a thing this morning that I’ve never done before in my whole life–opened up a line of political dialogue with my socially conservative family. I saw the news about Bannon, and I am FUCKING TERRIFIED. The climate-change denying EPA guy Myron Ebell is awful, Ben Carson is the worst, Newt Gingrich is a human trash fire, etc etc. But Reagan and Bush made terrible appointments like this and we made it through that–we can still move forward with established grassroots strategies and try to stave off our own desctruction. But Steve Bannon is professionally hateful, and his energy is both contaigous and deeply dangerous.
So I’m calling my Senators and Representatives later today, and I composed the letter below to my family. I’m scared to have done it, but I have to do something. I put in bold the parts that only apply to me–replace them with instances from your own life. Or (even better) rewrite the whole thing in your own voice. I looked up all the contact info for the senators and reps for my family in the hope that this would make them actually take action–and I think it’s a good way to signal to them how serious I am. Feel free to cut and paste.
Hi family,

I’m writing with a political plea, which I normally wouldn’t do, but I’m really scared. In just the last week, I’ve already heard–from people I know personally–about moments of aggression and intimidation, even in deep blue places like Massachusetts and Maryland. At Winchester High School (the next town over from ours) on Thursday, a white student walked into the classroom of his Indian-American science teacher 20 minutes late with a “Make America Great Again” baseball hat on, wrapped in a flag, blaring music which he refused to turn off. A group of white male students from Babson College in Wellesley drove in a pickup truck to Wellesley College, where they verbally harassed a group of black students. At Ariel’s cousin’s son’s middle school in Bethesda, the bathroom was covered in swastika graffiti on Wednesday morning. And those aren’t even among the more than 300 hate crimes reported since Tuesday

As a gay mom with two young kids, I’m scared. As a woman, I’m scared. As a friend to Muslims and African Americans and immigrants, I’m scared.

I know that people are saying that we should give Trump a chance, and that sounds like a nice idea, but the moment (of many) that gives me the most pause is his appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News to his cabinet. This guy has made a career out of hate-mongering, and if he is in a position of real power, the consequences would be dire. The next time something like the tragedy at San Bernadino happens, things will get very bad for a lot of innocent people in this country really quickly.

I’m willing to buckle down and try to work with or around economic and policy decisions I disagree with–as a person with a lot of opinions, I’m used to doing that. I’m hoping that I’m wrong about Trump, and that the promises of moderation he’s making now will pan out. But Bannon will bring out the very worst in Donald Trump, and in the country, and I will do whatever I can to try to stop his appointment.

I’m calling my representative and Senators to plea with them to do whatever they can to stop Bannon’s appointment. I’ve made a list below of contact information for your Representatives and Senators. I’ve actually never called my representative before–too afraid of conflict, I guess–but I’m motivated to action by what I’ve seen so far, and what I anticipate is down the line. Please, please call–especially those of you in states that went for Trump. ESPECIALLY those of you in Texas. Your representatives need to know that the vitriol which was so central to his campaign cannot be normalized in our culture. You can support Trump’s policies without co-signing open hatred. Tell them you’re voting, tell them you’ll remember next cycle–and especially tell them if you voted for Trump. Politicians are cynical, I know, and calling the office directly is actually a way to get them to pay attention. If you can convince your friends to do the same, even better.

Thanks for listening. I’m happy to talk about this more if you want. I’m sending you this letter because I love you and I know that you want what’s best for me and my family.

Lots of love,

Anne

Classic signs

I was at an AA dance one time, and a guy there got into a huge screaming match with his girlfriend, and pulled her out by her arm. The community intervened and separated them, restraining him and gathering, amoeba-like, around her, but the ugly truth of their relationship was now unavoidably clear to all of us. I don’t remember if the event ended right after that or not, but I went home deeply shaken. He’d seemed like a great guy–funny, handsome, warm–and I was flabbergasted by how mistaken my judgment had been.

He was at the meeting I went to the next morning, which was the biggest group in town, so pretty much everyone who had been at the party was there. At the end of the meeting, during the announcements, he stood up. “I just want to make an amends to the whole group,” he said. He’d had issues with anger his entire life, he explained, and he was working really hard to use the program to get past them, but things got out of control that night in a way he hadn’t expected, and he knew now that he needed to put renewed energy into his own personal process to try to deal with this.

I felt reassured–my initial ideas of him didn’t seem so off base now, and his contrition seemed real. We’re all trying to get better, I thought, and here’s an example of someone who’s really willing to do that work. When I told my best friend, she said “you watch, he’s going to fucking kill her someday.” Apologies are just part of the dance, and a public apology of that kind worked to ensure that he got back the trust of the larger community.

Ultimately, the woman in the couple left. Maybe he did change, but I doubt it. My dad changed, so anything is possible, but he only did so after my mom left and THEN after at least a decade of really hard internal work. Like I said yesterday, I believe people’s actions, and Trump’s appointment of Bannon is a much clearer declaration of his relationship to organized violence and misinformation than any contrite 60 minutes horseshit.

The worst part of all this, for me, is this nightmarish feeling like I’ve gone back in time. I’ve spent my whole adult life ensuring that I didn’t get pulled back into abusive relationships like the ones that shaped my childhood, but here I am again, subject to the will of an unpredictable abuser. And unlike my mom, I can’t leave. For fuck’s sake, even if we do all move to Canada, he’ll still be here with his finger on the button, belching coal into our atmosphere and arming racist cops with tanks and M-16s.

But here’s one difference: I’m done apologizing, and I’m done thinking there’s something wrong with me. I do think we got ourselves into this situation–as I did every time I actively pursued a guy who mistreated me, which I did many, many times. Even us nice white folks in Pantsuit Nation need to take a hard look at our own culpability here, and the way that our privilege blinded us to the reality of this threat. But abusers don’t come after me because I’m too fat, or because I’m weird, or because I’m a lesbian, or because I’m a woman. They come after me because they’re hateful, and there’s no way I change myself to keep that vitriol from coming my way.

What I can do is prepare. So I’m giving monthly donations to Planned Parenthood, 350.org, the ACLU, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I urge you to do the same. I’m taking a self-defense class at my work, and I’m running my ass off. I’m upping my meds–not because I think I’m crazy, but because I need to be able to sleep and I want to be present for my kids so that they’ll have the emotional resilience to make it through whatever the future holds.

Come at me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this fight.

Trust

My mom will be the first to say that she’s not very smart about relationships, but she’s given me one piece of really good advice on that front, passed down from the minister she and my dad went to for marriage counseling when they were reconciling in my teens: Trust is earned. I want to believe the best of people, and I want to believe they have my best interests at heart. Often people rise to this belief, but when they don’t, the consequences can be really, really dire.

I haven’t been able to even look at the news in the last few days–I’m too hunkered down, and I just can’t bring myself to hear or read someone in power say “President-elect Trump.” I do hear, however, that there have been many calls for conciliation and cooperation with the new administration. I watched Clinton’s concession speech, and I admired her willingness to put her ego to the side. I’m trying to do something along these lines with Izzy–keep things as normal as possible for her, help her feel safe, help her believe that things will be okay, even though I’m sure in my heart that I’m lying to her. And this is what Obama’s and Clinton’s gestures felt like to me: the action of good parents, reassuring their children that they will make it through this famine, even though they probably won’t.

And there’s a selflessness that I appreciate and admire–putting the needs of others before your own is the definition of public service, right? But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is the first president in history who has never done a day of public service in his life. I see no information indicating he has ever seriously considered the experience of someone other than himself. The tone of his concession speech was magnanimous, and I know he’s dialing back on some of the crazier claims of his campaign, but I see nothing that makes me think he won’t move forward with them once he has the power. I’m looking, instead, to these rules for survival in an autocracy.

Because here’s the thing about trust: I had a series of experiences, all in a row, when I was in my early teens that should have made me see this coming. When my dad’s mistress sent a letter to our house, I picked up on what was happening, but I thought “that can’t possibly be true, you’re being ridiculous.” When I picked up on the leering vibe of the eighteen-year-old who would go on to grope me in my sleep the weekend before my thirteenth birthday, I thought “He seems nice, and he likes you!”  When I started to realize that my thirty-two-year-old neighbor was about to make out with me, I thought “get over yourself–you’re thirteen and he’s a grown man. Nothing is going to happen.” I’m done trusting that abusers will listen to their better selves.

And it’s funny–it’s this delusion (“he couldn’t possibly…”) that probably led many people to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s the difference between white supremacy and open bigotry. Open bigotry is easy to spot (and, sadly, certainly easier to spot these days): it’s hateful, grabbing at power and causing pain. But white supremacy is the conviction that power will undo itself unaided by work from below. White supremacy is trusting that a system which has only ever fucked everyone will suddenly become kind. That they didn’t really mean it. That they couldn’t possibly.

Here’s what I trust: I trust my community, who has shown up in ways both small and large each day for us. I trust my experience, which informs me that my fear is grounded in reality. I trust my resilience: I grew up surrounded by men like Trump, who knew they could say terrible things about women, POC, queers, and whomever else without consequence, men who took and took from the world. But I made it out, into an adult life where I’m no longer powerless. And people have been doing that forever: coming up out of pain and powerlessness into a new life. I may be in danger, but I’m not powerless anymore.

Write my way out

Ages ago, when I was stuck with my dissertation, I got a great piece of writing advice from a friend, and I still use it every time I sit down to write. Begin by making a list of five things you observe, one for each of your senses. It’s a great way to ground yourself before you get going, and I think that search for sensory detail makes me a better writer to boot.

What I noticed this morning was the smell of fear. I’ve had it upon awakening for two days now, and I fear that it will be my companion for much longer. The world looks different to me today, and the worst part is that I feel like I’m seeing more clearly than I was–and what I see is that things are much, much worse.

But I’m solution-oriented, if nothing else. And this whole process is as clear a reminder as I could get that my cozy suburban life is precarious at best, that I never stopped being seen as less than, both for the fact that I have a vagina and for what I do with it. So the upside (if you can call it that) is that solidarity is real right now, and I really, really felt it yesterday.

I also know that anti-racist solidarity is something I have to earn, that I haven’t yet. Because Trump is on us. White people overwhelmingly voted to elect Trump. Even nearly half of college-educated white women voted for him. I’m part of this group, and I’ve done the same thing of deprioritizing the concerns of POC because other concerns seemed more pressing. If this election has made anything clear to me, it’s that this is my struggle, and that we, the dispossessed, are all in this shit together.

Here’s what I’ve been telling my students, and what I’m trying to tell myself. Ages ago, when Izzy was having a lot of behavior problems, Ariel and I went to a child psychologist for advice on how to deal with it, and how to keep our own reactions from clouding our behavior with her. She told us to sit down and determine what the central values of our family were, in clear terms that Izzy could understand, and then bring the conversation back to those ideas when she was acting out. So if she hits Teddy, we say “you can’t hit your brother because he’s just a baby and he’s powerless. Our family protects people who are powerless–that’s part of who we are.” So here’s my set of family values (take that, Mike Pence):

Be kind. Help others. Say thanks. Protect the powerless. Share. Listen. Have fun. Make art.

I can do that no matter where I am. If the economy falls apart, if my family is no longer recognized by the state, if I’m threatened by violence–I can still find people to help, I can still share, I can still say thanks, I can still be kind, I can still stick up for those who have less power than I do, I can still connect with other people, I can still dance. And I can still write. So here goes.

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.