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I have spent a lot of time this week dreading talking about this, but knowing that I absolutely must talk about the deluge of revelations about sexual assault in the news, including a woman accusing Judge Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was fourteen years old. Having written a book in which a grown man has sexual contact with a fourteen-year-old girl, I don’t get to take a pass on talking about this.

To have this conversation requires me to ask you to accept that I am simultaneously two contradictory things. I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, as an adult and as a child, but I am also a woman who at the age of thirteen had a loving and consensual relationship that involved sexual contact with a man more than a decade older than me.

I will never argue that relationship wasn’t illegal. Of course it was. He knew better. Hell, I knew better, but thirty years later, I have no regrets. Quite the opposite, I have very fond memories of a relationship in which my consent was respected in a way it has never been since. It was my first sexual experience, and I got exactly what I wanted, and was never pressured into doing things I didn’t want to do. In fact, that relationship taught me about the importance of consent and about my right to refuse anything I didn’t want.

Despite my personal feelings about my relationship, I will never suggest that it shouldn’t have been illegal. There’s a reason I wrote a novel in which the man involved in such a relationship goes to prison. We need age of consent laws to protect young people from predation. While I felt capable of consenting at thirteen, most thirteen year olds are not. We need the laws to be black and white, even as a whole lot of gray exists in the world. We also need to enforce those laws, but for that to happen, we have to listen to victims of sexual assault and believe them. The laws are meaningless if we don’t listen every time.

The first time I was assaulted as a child, I told exactly one person. That person didn’t believe me. I didn’t tell anyone else. The second time it happened, I didn’t tell anyone, because I had learned that no one would believe me. This has been my experience as an adult, too. People refusing to believe me when I say I wasn’t a victim at thirteen. Police officers explaining to me at nineteen that I hadn’t “really” been raped. The second time I was raped as an adult, the only person I told was a counselor at an abortion clinic. She was literally the first person who believed what I had to say.

I tell you all of this to acknowledge that my personal experiences and the novel I wrote are troubling and problematic. I write these kinds of books, because they reflect my lived experiences.

I tell you all of this to affirm that when someone tells me what has happened to them, my default is always to believe them. I would rather learn later that my faith and compassion were misplaced than fail to offer them in the first place. If we truly want to protect people from sexual harassment and assault, the first step is to believe that these things happen. And they happen without regard for whether the accuser has a “troubled past” and without regard for whether the accused is liked or respected in their field. If we’re tired of people coming forward ten, twenty, thirty years after the fact, we have to make it possible for people to come forward immediately. That starts with listening and believing.

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During the 2000 election, I was living in Florida. A lot of talk was made about Al Gore being the lesser of two evils. Like the Clintons, he was deeply connected with Big Banking, Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Guns, and Big Prisons. In short, despite his pro-environment talk, Al Gore was in bed with all the moneyed interests that have worked so hard to turn America into an oligarchy. He was influence and controlled by the same powers controlling Bush.

Looking around at the problems that existed in America in 2000, I decided I didn’t want more of the same. I didn’t want an oligarchy. I didn’t want the kind of welfare reform and “tough on crime” nonsense that was a thin cover for the ongoing oppression of black people in this country. I wanted change, radical change. (The same reason I supported Bernie through the primaries this year. I still want change.)

ralph-nader-buttonI supported Nader, and not just at the voting booth. I campaigned for him. I knocked doors and rang phones for him. He was by no means a perfect candidate, but he was not part of the oligarchy.

On Election Day 2000, I voted for Nader. In Florida. I justified it to myself with the excuse that Gore was the lesser of two evils, and in doing so, I overlooked the fact that a lesser evil is inherently less evil.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. You vote however your conscience or your pragmatism tells you to vote today, but remember Florida in 2000.

Hindsight, being what it is, how many of us Nader supporters think Gore would have been a worse president than Bush? More than 537 of us?

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radiojornalismoAlmost three months on from the release of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I’ve done quite a few interviews, but yesterday I got to do one where I was finally asked to discuss one of the issues at the heart of the novel. I’ve talked a little about it at live book events, but this one finally gave me the terrifying chance to talk on the record about consent.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the whole interview here or you can read excerpts from it here. (That second link comes with bonus, maximum-80s picture of me at 13.)

One of the things that I talked about in the interview is the fact that our laws are of necessity based on very black and white ideas of right and wrong, but that we have to acknowledge gray areas. We want the issue of underage sex to be so clear cut that no decent person could get involved in it. That’s the way we like to see it in the news, some great maw in the moral foundation. We want to believe that we stand on one side–the right one–and squint toward the other side, the one where pedophiles gather in shadows.

I say that as someone who not only existed in a gray area, but who thrived and was happy in a gray area. When I was a young teenager, I was in a loving relationship with a much older man. That relationship was sexual, it was consenting, and it was secret. Not just while I was in it, but even once I was an adult. Obviously, it was secret at the time, because it was illegal, but why did it continue to be secret long after it was over, and long after I was an adult?

I kept it a secret, because I got tired of having my narrative overruled by well-meaning people who were more comfortable shaming me than believing that I had been capable of consent. Prior to the release of this novel, I had only told a few people about that relationship, and every time was disastrous. One intimate partner, the one who had goaded me into talking about my earliest sexual experiences, told me, “You’re wrong. You were a victim and that man was a pedophile.”

It was devastating to be told that my personal feelings were irrelevant. In many ways, it was as terrible as the time I tried to report a sexual assault and the police sent me home without writing down a word, after they calmly informed me that I hadn’t actually been raped. They weren’t even two sides of the same coin. They were the same side of the coin. I was being silenced and robbed of my narrative agency. You were a victim, you weren’t a victim, you don’t even know what happened to you. Except I did. Of course, I did.

What scares me about all of this is that we continue to treat people this way. We continue to disbelieve what people say about what happened to them. The John Geoghans and the Jerry Sanduskys of the world are made possible, because when the first child came forward to tell someone what had been done to them, they weren’t believed. Either because they were accusing someone in a position of authority, or because their ability to discern what had happened wasn’t respected.

The thing is, consent isn’t black or white. It’s a long procession of gray areas. A child doesn’t magically become capable of consent when they reach the birthday the legislature in their state has deemed gives them the power of consent. (The fact that it varies by geographical location should be a hint that it’s not as tidy a process as we’d like.)

If you tell me that I was incapable of consenting at 13, then you’re also telling me that I was incapable of refusing consent. The message there is that a 13-year-old’s body doesn’t even belong to them, but to their parents, to the state, to the church.

People become capable of consent, when we teach them what it means to consent, and when their consent is respected. When we actually listen when a child says yes or no, we empower and protect them.

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Last week, there was a bit of a dust up about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things on social media. I did my best to stay out of it, but having stayed out of it, I’d like to address the issue very briefly here and without naming names.

It’s okay to hate my book. Not every book is for everybody.

If you read my book and you hate it, that’s fine. We’re square, you and me. I brought myself to the book. You brought yourself to the book. Perhaps we’re just not compatible. That’s cool.

If you choose not to read my book, because of things you have heard about it, that’s okay, too. I often give books a pass if they sound like something I wouldn’t want to read.

If you choose not to read my book, but then publicly express your hatred for it and for anyone who enjoyed it, understand that your hatred is coming from a place of ignorance. Are you comfortable with being that person? Someone who hates something out of ignorance? Someone who judges people without knowing who they are or what they’ve been through?

On a nearly daily basis, I am called upon by strangers to defend All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. And if they were merely asking me to defend my book, I might not be so troubled, but this morning, I have yet another email that asks, “Why would you write a book like this?”

I suspect that the real question is Why do you exist? Within that question about my existence, there are these questions: Why did you choose to have a drug dealer as your father? Why did you experience things that make me uncomfortable? Why do you think you have a right to tell stories that reflect your life? Why don’t you shut up?

The answer is simple. I won’t shut up, because if people like you have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what you’ve experienced, people like me have the right to tell and read stories that reflect what we’ve experienced. I’m going to keep doing that.

night-sky-for-custom-book-plates

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Sometimes when I’m talking about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I have a hard time trying to get across the point that there are worse things that can happen to a girl raised around drug addicts. For a lot of readers, Wavy’s life seems utterly horrific, as is her relationship with what one person described as a “drug-dealing bike thug with a violent, hair-trigger temper.” Even as I wrote Wavy’s story, though, I was carrying in the back of my mind the knowledge that things could have been so much worse for her. As bad as Wavy’s parents are, there are far worse monsters out there.

Victoria-MartensToday, the morning news contained a visceral reminder of that. Here is the story of Victoria Martens. Drugged, raped, and murdered by her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s cousin. This is real life, not fiction, and it illustrates the absolute most horrific thing that can happen to a child when the adults in her life are drug addicts who have lost touch with reality, decency, and respect for human life.

And while the news doesn’t mention it, these people are drug addicts. Casual users of drugs pop pills or snort coke, like they’ve seen in the movies. Casual drug users don’t keep the necessary equipment to inject a 10-year-old girl with meth so that their boyfriends can rape her on her birthday. (I have no interest in parsing the details of who did the injecting, raping, murdering. If her mother was there for it and could have intervened, she as good as did it all herself.)

So while I will be the first person to acknowledge that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is neither ideal nor desirable for a young girl, I also tend to look at it from the slant of other little girls’ tragedies. I wish every girl in this situation could simply get out of it and go to a safe home to live with responsible, loving adults. Failing that–and as a society, we are failing that–I wish all the girls in this situation had at least one person to provide them with unconditional love and protection. I wish the Wavies of the world could always have a Kellen in some form or another, but so often they don’t.

Love and peace to you, Victoria.

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The only thing I do with the kind of commitment and zeal I have for writing is home projects. That ranges from repainting all my kitchen cabinets to single-handedly sistering in six sixteen-foot ceiling joists. As with writing, some of my home projects are crazier than others, and some turn out better than others.

Then there are those projects that are borne out of love. Like the ramp I just built for my dog, Josey. About two years ago, Josey had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in her left knee. I was prepared for the likelihood that she’d need the same surgery on her other knee eventually, and that day has come. The last time she had surgery, which involves four months of restricted activity, including no stairs or jumping, I built a big ramp to surmount my front porch steps. Inside the house, I did something I’d been dreaming of since my divorce: I got rid of the bed that I hated. For the duration of her rehabilitation, we slept on a mattress on the floor, like a pack of dirty hippy dogs.

Now that I have a new bed, though, I knew I’d need a ramp inside the house. Writing is like this. Sometimes you just *have* to write. Sometimes there’s some unseen force compelling you, and sometimes there’s a clearer motivation. Like the desire to sell a book or be published or make a point. Or somebody giving you sad puppy eyes. Not that my agent gave me sad puppy eyes, but she did send an email inquiring about how the next book was coming.

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If, as a writer, you like to make plans, perhaps you start with an outline. Or a fancy spreadsheet. To build a dog ramp, I started with a few sheets of graph paper, and the measurements that delineated the space I had available for a dog ramp at the foot of my bed.

Graph paper! It's practically engineering.

Graph paper! It’s practically engineering.

Now, the truth is: I’m a pantser. In all things. I can draw as many plans as I like on graph paper. I can make as many outlines as I want when I start a writing project. In the end, though, they will all come to naught. I cannot plan a dog ramp any more than I can plan a novel. They just happen.

My first stop for the dog ramp was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat myself here: if you’re remodeling a house, ReStore will have everything you need. On a long enough timeline. You may have to show up every Saturday morning for a year to get 42 matching sets of antique copper kitchen cabinet hinges, but eventually, you will. Writing is like this, too. On a long enough timeline, you will figure everything out. Eventually, all your research and your work will pay off, but you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

When I went to ReStore on Saturday, with my roughly sketched plans, the playing field changed as soon as I saw this:

Game changing chair

Game changing chair

That is one of about ten solid oak, mid-century reception chairs from either a doctor’s office or the local university. This one had some damage to its back, that’s why I chose him to be sacrificed. More importantly, he was basically identical to the original sketch of what I imagined I’d need as a platform for my dog ramp. Sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, this happens with novels. In the midst of struggling with plot or character, you stumble across something that fits perfectly and requires almost no alterations to work. Maybe you’ve got an old short story with the perfect plot twist or a character that ended up being cut from a different project. Note I didn’t say no alteration, but almost.

Chop and chop, and voila! The damaged back is removed and the ramp platform is complete. It shaved about 3 hours of work off my project. After that, I returned to my sketches and ferreted out the basic math needed to cut and attach my ramp struts. And then I had to revise my math. A few times. And I had to change a few other things. And I had to sleep on it–not the ramp, but my understanding of how it was going to go together. My novel drafts work like this. I find myself rearranging parts, rethinking how characters interact, changing dynamics, settings, and doing an awful lot of just wandering around, thinking.

You’ll notice that the two intermediary legs of my ramp don’t look the same. It’s because a.) I tried out two different methods for attaching the supports, and b.) I had two different kinds of hardware available to me. (That’s what happens with home projects made out of scraps–which most of mine are–and novels, which are almost entirely made of brain scraps.)

In true form for me, I also made the ramp (novel) a lot sturdier than it had to be. It has to hold up under a 60-lb. boxer. I made it strong enough to hold me at more than three times that weight. My first drafts are always way too bulky, because I’d rather include redundancies and details that I don’t really need. It’s easier for me to cut stuff later than to try to add things.

Even in a first draft, even knowing that you’ll have to come back a hundred times to reconsider, rewrite, reassess, you want the first draft to look respectable. After all, it has to be functional, and you want it to look as good as you can get it before you send it to your beta/crit partner/agent/editor. For me, that often means making sure my chapter headings are all squared away. (Oh this hot mess here, where it’s not totally clear whose POV it’s in? Don’t worry about that. I’ll fix that. But see how my chapters are neatly labeled and organized?)

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In the case of the dog ramp, well, the parts don’t exactly match. You’ve got the chair base and the raw 2x4s and the random scraps and the mismatched legs, and the ramp itself built out of discarded kitchen cabinet doors with the hinges still attached, but look! It’s covered in fancy (and on clearance) area rugs!

Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll need to do a second (or third or fourth or …) draft of the dog ramp. The first draft of the novel, though, that’s just the beginning of the work. I’ve been known to churn out a first draft in a very short time, but after that … It took me three weeks to write the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but nearly two years to finish revisions.

Speaking of, there’s another giveaway going on at Goodreads.

 

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When I was in college, I did the sort of stupid things you do in college. Lucky for me, those were the days before cell phone cameras and the internet, so there’s very little record of my stupid stunts. Like that time I got a crew cut. Why? I barely remember. I think I bombed a test and got in a fight with my boyfriend. I wanted a change. I wanted to be swallowed up by something else. I hacked off all my hair and after I saw what a mess I’d made of it, I went to the barber shop and got the only fix that was possible: a flat top with white walls.

For the most part, this radical hair alteration didn’t produce much change in my life. Lots of people didn’t recognize me, and so I was rendered pleasantly invisible for a while. It caused a lot of laughs when people got confused by the juxtaposition of my short-short hair and my boyfriend’s hair down to his waist.

One day, it produced something a bit more menacing. A friend and I went into the Arby’s off campus to get lunch. While we waited for our food, I decided to go to the restroom. The ladies room was at the end of a long hallway, and standing outside was a man. I assumed he was waiting for his girlfriend, so I simply stepped around him and reached for the door handle.

Before I could open the door, the guy grabbed my arm and turned me around.

“Where are you going, asshole?” he said. Or maybe it was “What are you doing, asshole?” I remember the asshole part vividly, and the way he sneered at me, almost like a dog baring its teeth.

I yanked my arm away from him and answered flippantly. I was going to the restroom, if that was okay with the Arby’s bathroom police.

“That’s the girls bathroom,” he said. I remember that, too, that he said girls, like we were still in grade school.

“And I’m a girl,” I said.

For an instant, his face registered confusion, and I remembered: the stupid crew cut. He’d mistaken me for a man, or more likely, since I was scrawny and flat-chested, for a boy. After the instant of confusion passed, though, his look changed to one of disgust.

“Fucking dyke,” he said. I don’t know what else he might have said, because at that instant, the women’s restroom door opened, and his girlfriend came out.

Back at the table with my friend, I told her what had happened, and in the safety of a public space, we laughed and snuck glances at the restroom couple, who sat across the dining room from us.

I don’t think I gave it another thought, until this December, when I read this series of tweets.

Adamant Yves

 

It absolutely gave me the chills, imagining that moment of fear, of wondering, Am I about to be murdered because this man mistook me for the “wrong” sex? For the first time in twenty years, I thought of that afternoon outside the ladies room in Arby’s. Now that I know more about the world, I understand how dangerous that moment could have been, and how lucky I was. After all, I was safe. In my wallet, I carried a valid driver’s license that clearly stated I was female. If push came to shove, I could have proved that I possess biologically female genitals and secondary sex traits. That brief moment of confusion was just that: brief confusion. Even a “fucking dyke,” has the legal right to use the women’s restroom.

For people who exist outside the very narrow confines of what society identifies as male or female, they are risking so much more than an awkward encounter outside a fast food restroom. By chance or by choice, they may not be readily identifiable as one gender or another. In fact, they may not identify themselves as one gender or another. As a consequence, they sometimes find themselves searching back hallways of public buildings, trying to find a unisex bathroom they can use that won’t require them to prove they belong in a men’s room or a women’s room.

In public even, they are in danger from the kind of situation Yves describes. We live in a society that continues to think it’s our business how people dress or what kind of genitals they have under their clothes. We not only think we’re allowed to know these things, some people believe anyone who transgresses those sharply painted boundaries deserves to be punished.

It’s a horrific, fucked up situation, and I wish I knew what we could do to make this a better world. I have my own little list of shit I’m trying to do, and I hope more people will join in.

Respect everybody’s truth. If someone says she’s a woman and wants to use she/her pronouns, respect that. If someone says they’re gender fluid and prefer they/them pronouns, respect that. It’s no different than calling someone by their preferred name. (And if you tell me you still call Muhammad Ali Cassius Clay, I am giving you the stink eye.)

Kill your curiosity. But like, she has a penis? But what do they do in bed? Those questions are none of your business, so why even ask them? If people you know ask that kind of thing about your LGBTQIA friends, that’s the answer: None ya business. Things like that are on a need to know basis. If you ever need to know, you’ll find out. Occasions when it might become your business: if the person in question says, “Hey, I’d be interested in having sex with you.” Then that line of inquiry is open to you.

Accept that it’s not about you. Does it make you uncomfortable to go into the women’s restroom and see someone who doesn’t quite fit your idea of female? Tough shit. It’s not about you. That person is going into the bathroom that makes them feel most comfortable, because they need to pee. They’re not there for you. Does it make you uneasy that you felt an attraction toward what you thought was a woman but turned out to be a man? Get over yourself. The way he looks isn’t about you.

Demand justice for LGBTQIA victims of violence. They are over-represented in statistics on violence, especially people of color who are LGBTQIA. Their murders are often swept under the rug or ridiculed. Let’s refuse to let that happen. Let’s refuse to accept “gay panic” as a defense against murder. Let’s not allow fragile masculinity to dehumanize people.

Be open. Talk to people. Smile at people. That’s coming from an introvert, and I’m saying, when you meet somebody new, be open to them as a wholly individual person. Don’t waste time trying to put them into a category.

Post script: I don’t know @Adamant_Yves personally, but I ended up reading his timeline in the middle of New York Fashion Week. I’m an ignorant hillbilly who always thought fashion was something rich people wasted their time and money on. Reading Yves’ TL, my eyes were opened. Until that moment, I didn’t understand that fashion was art, culture, personal and social identity all bound up together. That’s what I love about Twitter. There’s so much knowledge out there being shared. There are so many people worth meeting and learning from.

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