The other day I was lurking in a comment thread on an article examining how one solution to homelessness is to give people houses, much along the same idea as one way to alleviate poverty is to give people money. The thread went in a number of different directions. One was the difference between private charity (e.g., church-run) and public (i.e., government sponsored) charity. The consensus being that private charity often involves certain stipulations to ascertain whether the impoverished person is “deserving” of help (do you go to the right church, life your life the right way, etc.) whereas public charity tries to distribute resources more equitably.
Whoa, hold on there, hoss. As a poor person, I disagree. Okay, the government may try to distribute resources more equitably, but US culture is so steeped in ideas of the virtues of capitalism and the idleness of the poor that the people making laws can’t help but spout nonsense every time they open their mouths. How would they? They literally have no idea what being poor is. As a result, ideas about deserving show up in all the ways meant to help people in need. They take the form of hoops you have to jump through to get that help, and while they may be different hoops than, say, being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer before supper or having to sleep in a separate shelter than your life partner due to ideas about morality (or, for that matter, not being acceptable to a shelter at all if you’re gay), they do more to hinder and demoralize us poors than to give us a hand.
We’re currently in the process of seeking some assistance, and here are some of the hoops I’ve noticed.
The Childless Hoop
Virtually every form of public assistance I’ve looked at prefers, and in the case of being eligible for immediate aid requires, that there be minor children present in the house. Now I happen to think it’s great the government wants to feeds children despite some politicians’ best efforts to the contrary. And I don’t believe that people would elect to have children solely to get those cushy benefits, as I’m sure some do. However, as a childless poor woman I feel even more of a second-class citizen every time I fill out a form asking if there are minor children in the house and know my chances of getting help would be better if there were. (In fact, back in the dim and distant past, the first time I applied for assistance [unemployment], the case worker told me to my face I might as well give up trying since I didn’t have children. And this was before Clinton’s Welfare Reform, mind.) Moreover, as a childless woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have them, I feel slapped in the face every time I have to answer that same question. Not pleasant, or easy.
The Distance Hoop
The other day, my husband had to drive some forms over to the county social services extension in the next town, a distance of ten miles. When he got home, he told me, “I was watching the gas gauge the entire way, and I’m going to have to come up with some money to put in the tank by the end of the week or I won’t be able to get to work.”
Every time we have to turn in a piece of paperwork or attend an in-person interview, at least one of us has to travel those ten miles at minimum. If we can’t do what we need to do at the extension office and have to go all the way to the main social services building, that’s thirty miles. One way. There’s no public transportation in the rural area where we live. If we didn’t have a working vehicle, we’d have to borrow one or beg a ride, or we’d be stuck. It’s asking a bit much, I think, of poor people to require they have a car–and the gas for it–to be able to apply for assistance. And it plays directly into the next hoop we have to jump through, which is
The Time Hoop
Applying for assistance takes time. No matter what some people believe, you can’t just walk into an office and claim you need help, and walk away with a fat cheque. There are myriad forms to fill out, and interviews to attend, and more paperwork to file after the first lot has been processed. We’ve been working on this process for six weeks now, and we have no word whether we even qualify.
Government agencies don’t care about your time, and that’s dehumanizing. And it’s even worse in rural areas. Sure, some things can be done through the post, but the post isn’t reliable. Here the post has to go from Delta, where the main social services office is located, all the way to Grand Junction to be processed, and only then back to our small town. This can take days. Back last summer when my husband had his work accident and we were trying to see if we could get it covered on his insurance, we got a notification that we needed to file certain paperwork after the date it was due. Consequently, his whole claim was denied. More recently, we received notification of a phone interview the evening before it was to take place (at 8:30 the next morning). This doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements–in our case, with my husband’s job, in other cases, for childcare or anything else necessary to make sure you have a chunk of time available. And we were lucky; our interview could be conducted over the phone. If you have to go in, in our area that’s 30 miles to cover to get to the main office, then another chunk of time waiting–there’s always waiting–and then up to another hour for the interview itself. If you have to travel and you lack a car, you can easily blow an entire day getting to and from one interview. In that long ago time when I filed for unemployment, I had to ride a local bus from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti several times. It’s a distance of ten miles; it took 45 minutes there and back, plus the time at the social services office every time. That didn’t leave much during the day for other things like, say, looking for other work.
The Proof Hoop
I’m convinced that the reason for all these hoops is that the social safety net–for what it’s worth–in the US isn’t designed benefit people at all. It’s designed to keep out those whom the system decides don’t qualify, for whatever seemingly arbitrary reason. And nowhere is this more evident than in the mountains of proof required to convince social service workers that you actually need and qualify for help (the accumulation of which takes time which you may not have, mind).
Take my disability claim. I have had a serious mental illness my entire life. Numerous doctors have treated me for it. Many of those have told me and those around me that I would never be able to work a full time job. (My parents were told “she’ll never be able to take care of herself” when I was eighteen.) Despite this, it took me until ten years ago to think that maybe I might qualify for disability, So I filled out the forms and was denied off the bat.
This is not unusual. Generally disability claims are denied the first time you apply, unless there’s reason to believe you won’t live another six months. If you appeal, you have a chance of your claim being granted, but you have to supply ample proof of your disability and, in many states (mine included), attend a court hearing.
I wasn’t up to the task, so I enlisted a lawyer who would take for his fee a portion of the award if my claim was granted. What I would do if it weren’t, I had no idea, but I was in bad shape so I went for it.
It took two years. The court demanded all my medical records for the ten years previous, as well as statements from all the doctors I had seen in that time and any I was seeing currently. In addition, I had to fill out another ream of paperwork: all about my treatment, and the meds I was taking, and what steps I had taken not to be disabled. I was deep in a major depressive episode at that time, and I could barely face doing the work. My lawyer called me up and yelled at me for not reviewing my files.
Well, anyway. I guess I presented as crazy enough at my hearing because my claim was granted. But even though I have a lifelong illness, the powers that be see fit to review my case every three to five years to see if I still have Bipolar Disorder. This puts me in a Catch-22, because if I improve too much I’ll lose the disability medical insurance that pays for the medications that helped me improve in the first place, and I’ll be right back where I started.
As a contrast, at the same time as I was going through all this rigmarole, a friend in England with troubles and a depressive episode of her own needed a reprieve from work. She saw her primary care doctor and told him what was going on. He wrote her a slip of paper “signing her off work” for six months, which she took to the nearest benefits office and that was that. Of course, things being what they are in the UK right now, this system may be on the way out.
More recently, as we’ve filed for assistance, we’ve been asked for proof of disability, proof of work, proof of wages earned, proof we no longer had a bank account that’s been closed for ten years, proof that an insurance policy was canceled, proof of debt…and the list goes on and on. All of which serves to solidify my belief that the social service system in the US exists in mortal fear of dispensing benefits to someone who doesn’t “deserve” them.
The poor would be better served, and bureaucracy much reduced, with less judgment and less concern about who deserves what and more compassion and trust. But until more politicians take their heads out of their asses and stop listening only to those with clout and money, attitudes of judgment will continue to infect the very systems claiming to provide relief.
Getting some pushback on yesterday’s blog, I see. Apparently poor people haven’t earned the right to be judgmental, or to be angry. Sometimes I think there are only two ways to be an acceptable poor person in the US. The first is the “Bob Cratchit” model: Show up to work every day at your perennially underpaid clerical job, wearing the threadbare yet neat suit you (or your partner) have painstakingly hand-tailored by the light of your single candle, live on your bowl of bean broth a day and never ask for more, and generally show stoicism about your lot. The second is the “dirty beggar” model: wear sackcloth and ashes and hang out on street corners (preferably with your entire family and a small dog), shaking empty coffee cans and hitting up passersby for spare change. This second, while not respectable, is certainly acceptable in that it gives your “betters” someone to look down on and complain about in various forms of media. Falling outside either of those models confuses and alarms people. And when people are confused and alarmed, they react in unpleasant ways.
Which brings me to today’s post. I found something educational in the veiled vitriol of one comment (interesting use of the quotation marks around the word “husband,” by the way; did you mean to question the existence of such a person? or do you simply doubt that we’re married? I decline to upload a copy of our certificate for your inspection.). It went like this:
“With the $10 you spend on Netflix, you could have had THREE pairs of glasses and not waited three years!”
Honestly, at first I had no idea what this meant. $10 is obviously not $101, which was the cost of my glasses. And it definitely would not have covered three pairs of glasses. So I had to rewrite this portion of the comment in my head. It came out like this:
“If you had saved that $10 a month instead of spending it on Netflix, you could have bought three pairs of glasses in three years.”
Ah-ha! That makes better sense–to a point. And this is where the educational part comes in. You see, poverty math is not like money math. Money math is straightforward: X amount x Y months over Z years = AMOUNT. Poverty math is more existential, and there are far more variables. So what looks like a simple equation ($10 saved on Netflix X 12 Months/year X 3 years = $360 = Enough for three pairs of glasses) becomes a complex equation including time and circumstances and all kinds of other things a poor person has no control over. I’ll spell it out:
Let’s say I decide that I’m going to do without Netflix and put that money in a jar every month, so at the end of three years I have enough for my three pairs of glasses. Let’s also say that at this point in time this is the only “extraneous” expense I have so this is the only savings I can make, and let’s grant that I am making enough to cover my monthly housing, food, and utilities.
After six months I have $60 in my “glasses fund” jar. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. Stuff always happens. Maybe I blow a tire on my car and it has to be replaced. That’s minor; a new tire costs about $60, less if you get one that’s patched. Do I dip into my glasses fund? Of course I do, because I have to have the car to get to work. It puts me back at zero on my glasses fund. This shows how savings are a function of circumstance. So now our equation can be expressed as:
[12(Savings) / (Circumstance)] X 3 = Glasses
You can make up the loss in a relatively short time. But that was a small problem. Let’s say there’s a big one. Let’s say your car blows an alternator. That’s around $300–it’s been a while since we had to have an alternator replaced. It wipes out your monthly food budget. Now you have $60 and no food, and your kids are hungry. Do you hold onto that $60? It’ll buy a lot of macaroni and cheese. Of course your future glasses will take back seat to that. Your savings have actually gone into a negative amount here, because it’s going to take you a while to make up your deficit. Remember, you have no credit cards, only cash in hand.
Poverty Math is an exercise in relativity, and the rule is always Current Circumstance > Future Circumstance.
People come up with all kinds of arguments against this reality of hand-to-mouth living. There’s always the person who will say, “But do you really need the car? Can’t you take public transportation or get a ride to work?” And I’m not going to answer that question, in the first place because there will always be something more important than the future that comes up, and in the second because nothing will ever satisfy these people. No matter what lengths of austerity poor people go to, those who think they know better will always claim they should do more and sacrifice more.
I don’t know if Poverty Math qualifies as a science. Perhaps it’s more of a philosophy. The time and relativity aspects insist that one exist in a kind of perpetual NOW, where worries about both the past and the future become irrelevant. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual systems recommend giving up material goods and living a life of poverty. I don’t see the bright side, myself. The problem of an eternal now is that you lose the ability to believe in the future at all.
If that’s part of enlightenment, I’d rather have the money.
[With regards to Occupy Math, who I hope will find this post humorous.]
So I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve posted another meme about how poverty is due to mismanagement of funds and not a lack of funds, and how you’re not about to “throw money at” the poor because it won’t solve the problem. And I’m not. It still makes me mad, though. I don’t have any reason to suppose you posted this meme in response to my sharing my GoFundMe campaign begging people to help us with this week’s $500 in bills that have to be paid RIGHT NOW, yet I do suppose it. Every time I see a meme like the one you shared, it feels personal to me. Both judgment and a slap in the face from someone who doesn’t know, and likely will never know, what it’s like to live in abject poverty. The kind of poverty where every day is another choice of what we can do without, another decision on what to put off and what absolutely has to be paid for.
I’m thinking you believe you could make those decisions better and more easily than we do. Trim the fat! Don’t spend anything extra and then you’ll have money to put away! I’m imagining your voice telling us we don’t need expensive broadband Internet (after the installation fee, cheaper than what we had before, so the alternative is no Internet, mind). We don’t need mobile phones, do we? Certainly not two of them, with two separate accounts! ($75 a month for the both of them, in an area where some places still don’t have landline access. Oh, right–we DO have a landline for emergencies; it’s $25 a month. Sometimes the fiber optic lines get cut.) They just aren’t necessary–except my husband needs to be available to take calls anywhere and anytime a job might come up. Except I have a mental illness and my phone can be my lifeline in a way the landline isn’t, in a way I can’t explain, but of course that doesn’t matter. I didn’t need to spend money on a nice steak yesterday ($7 on a really good sale) because ramen is good enough for every meal, even when I have a literal physical condition that requires and infusion of high quality food every so often. Let’s see, if I eliminate all that “fat” from my budget (unnecessary Internet, unnecessary phone plans but the phones are already paid for, the food doesn’t count because one must have some kind of food), then I’ll have saved a whole $125–not even enough to pay one of the outstanding medical bills we have on hold because my disability (did I mention I’m disabled?) medical only covers 80% and the husband doesn’t have any insurance at all. So we’re stuck with the pile-up of bills incurred when he almost cut off his thumb last fall. Now I’m down to choosing which of the utilities I can sacrifice and whether or not that mortgage payment is really necessary, and do I really have to see my therapist and my medication manager in this next week? That’s another $75, which would be $50 except the last time I saw my therapist (almost two months ago), the Mental Health Center was good enough to defer my fee. But I guess it’s not really important whether or not I’m suicidal.
You may notice that I can tell you the exact amount of every bill and how much we’ve spent in the last few days ($34.81 for a small sack of groceries because the last $10 has to go in the gas tank), and I didn’t even have to look that shit up. So I object to the claim that financial difficulties we face are the result of “poor management.” The truth is, we don’t have anything to manage. When you’re faced with a choice of being shot or being hung, all decisions are trivial.
I know very little about the way you live, other than that you have more than I do. I can admit that. Why do you assume you understand the causes of poverty, or how poor people live?
In Googling (there’s that unnecessary Internet service again) to find a citation for another statement I want to make, I found a lot of articles from people who seem to think as you do, right down to using the same words: “Throwing money at” the poor won’t cure poverty, for whatever the reason of choice happens to be. Can I just take a minute to tell you how offensive that wording is? Every time I see it in relation to someone or something needing funding to solve a problem, my sight turns red. I get an image of someone throwing meat at a starving dog to distract it, then running away. Running away without LOOKING and SEEING whether that dog has been mistreated, whether it’s chained, whether it has sufficient water and shelter and all the things a dog should have. To me, it says a lot more about the person who uses the phrase than it does about the people at whom it’s directed. It says you want an easy way out. It says you don’t want to think. It says you want to do the barest minimum thing possible to assuage your guilt, and maybe to keep you safe where that dog can’t get you. So you talk about “throwing money,” and then you dismiss the very concept, because you’ve made your pronouncement that it won’t work. And you know what, in some ways you’re right. “Throwing money” won’t “solve” poverty on a wide basis. Solving the problem would mean taking a good, hard look at the problems that cause it, at the limitations of Capitalism and Calvinism, and working hard to combat them. But that’s too hard. So you declare yourself without responsibility to your fellow human beings, who have had the misfortune not to start out with as much as you have, of who have slipped into the hole that waits for everyone who doesn’t toe the line. To those with mental or physical disabilities, or just with the wrong temperament, to do what one has to do to succeed within the system’s limitations. You got yours, they need to get theirs. World without end, Amen.
I’ll tell you what: “Throwing money at” poverty might not cure it. But it certainly helps to be able to get over the next hurdle and breathe a bit before you have to face the next one.
My husband owns two pairs of pants, did you know that? One for work and one for not-work, with a not-too-badly worn pair of jeans for those dirty jobs around the house. Is that too much for him to have, do you think? Should we sell one? Maybe with the money from it we could start an investment portfolio. I’m a bit luckier: a friend regularly gives me an Amazon gift certificate for my birthday, so I can get some clothes, a pair of boots. My good winter boots are 20 years old. My husband hasn’t had a new pair of work boots in at least 15 years, maybe more. If we can’t make them last, what do we do? There’s no money for new ones.
THERE’S NEVER ANY MONEY FOR NEW ONES.
Last time someone made a major contribution to my fundraiser, I bought new glasses ($101). I felt guilty for doing it, even though I’ve been needing new glasses for about three years now. I felt guilty about wanting to be able to see. But maybe that’s another thing I should have done without.
You know what else we don’t have that’s considered normal? A television or cable service. Entertainment in this house is hauling the laptop into the bedroom and hoping the screen lasts through another hour of streaming something on Netflix. Oh–should I have added Netflix to the list of things we can do without? That’s a whole ‘nother $10 per month! I should celebrate.
I know you have a job, wealthy person. I’m almost certain you don’t need it, because your partner earns the bulk of your income. It’s a hobby for you. Even that hobby would sustain us comfortably–more than comfortably. We’d be well off if we had the wages you earned from your hobby. Currently the husband is working part time at half his usual wage because that’s the only work there is. And yes, this much is true: We chose to live where we do, in an area that doesn’t offer a huge amount of opportunity. And we did all right until the Recession hit. We were willing, and are still willing, to make certain sacrifices. We saw a way toward a better future. That’s why husband went back to college right before the Recession. But you know what? That college degree has done bupkis for us. No one wants teachers here. No one wants to “throw money at” education. Good gods, what’s going to happen in a rural area with no alternatives but public school under our current president, I can’t bear to think!
You might advise us to up and move if we can’t make it where we are. I want to ask you, who’s going to pay for us to do that? Is someone going to guarantee work and moving expenses? Is someone going to find us a new place to live–far, I might add, from family members who are getting older, and who need us, and who don’t want to move? The house we live in wouldn’t bring much. We’re fortunate in that my dad bought if for us as a wedding present, but we’ve had to mortgage it up to the eyeballs. And you know, poverty has affected our house, too. I think we’d have to put about $10,000 into it before we could sell it. Where’s that going to come from?
I’m winding down from the intense rage I felt at the beginning of this post, but I want to add one last thing: You know what they worst thing is about being poor? Besides the moralizing, judgmental people who think they know what your life is like, I mean. The worst thing is, you get to this state where it seems like all you’ve known and all you’ll ever know, so there’s no use in dreaming of anything different. I was noticing this just this morning: We used to say things like, “Maybe next year we’ll get a chance to go to Denver Comic Con,” or “I really want to go to the Ren Faire in Larkspur; maybe next summer.” But we don’t say those things anymore. Because we know it’s not going to change. There’s not going to be any Comic Con this year, or the next year, or the one after that, so why bother even thinking of it? And maybe you’ll say that’s part of our problem: that we don’t make plans and then stick to them, so we never get out. But I’ll answer you this: You can’t make plans and stick to them if you don’t have the wherewithal and you have no way to get it. No matter what plan you make, it has to be able to shift in the face of necessity. And necessity boils down to food and shelter, with warmth and light and water coming not far behind. When I see your self-righteous meme, I imagine you think we’re not keeping track of these things. The truth is, we juggle them every single day. It doesn’t stop the unexpected from happening: The blown tire that has to be replaced, or else husband can’t get to work; the sickness that makes it impossible to work; the family emergency; any other thing that a wealthy person like you has a cushion for and we don’t.
The truth is, giving poor people money does work. You just don’t want to believe it does, because it relieves you of responsibility to help. In my book, that makes you a taker every bit as much as you think I am. So I guess we’re even.
Two weeks and two days ago, I woke up, along with the rest of the United States, knowing that Donald Trump had, contrary to all polls and predictions, and an increasing amount of the popular vote, won the election. This is what I’ve witnessed, read, and experienced since then, in no particular order and presented as much as possible without judgment (though there are definitely items on the list I find personally repugnant).
People texting or messaging me, to whom I’ve rarely spoken before, to express their dismay and terror. People who, knowing 70% of the county in which we live voted Trump, wonder which of our neighbors did, and whether it’s safe to trust them.
Within a day, 200 reports of hate crimes against People of Color, Muslims, and LGBTQ+ folks, even in areas of our state that swing fairly liberal. Within two days, double that number. In almost all cases, the perpetrator referenced Trump’s win as the force empowering them.
The report that 53% of white women, most of them middle class and above, voted for Trump. Numerous think pieces attributing this development to women “placing race above gender in importance.”
A friend experiencing so much harassment after the election that before two days had passed she and her family decided to move to another state.
Intense arguments between the conservative half of my extended family and the liberal half.
People of color feeling (justifiably) betrayed and saying they will “never trust a white person again.”
Think pieces blaming white women in particular for being too complacent.
A rally of the “alt-right,” a white supremacist group, at a hotel near the White House, complete with Nazi salutes and slogans in the original German.
Think pieces blaming the election results on third party voters.
Think pieces blaming the election results on “identity politics,” and calling on the Left to empathize more with white working class voters.
Arguments about what kind of show of solidarity is “right” or “enough” and what kind of action allies need to take, and who gets to define all those things.
A definite absence of acknowledgment from the able community of how much danger Trump’s election and Republican control of (potentially) all three branches of government poses to people with disabilities.
Lots of people with activated trauma of various kinds lashing out at each other. Calls for solidarity being met with recriminations.
Large peaceful protests of the election results in nearly every major city in the country.
A friend frightened and in tears because the protest in her city turned violent.
Conservative claims that all the protests are “riots.”
People conflicted between maintaining the outrage that motivates them and the urge, as well as politicians’ encouragement, to treat this election as “business as usual.”
A huge popular movement to audit the vote in three states where the tallies were incredibly close. Jill Stein’s unprecedented campaign to do just that, which raised $2.5 million in under two days.
An acquaintance whose cause celèbre is Universal Basic Income insisting it’s not just “white working class;” it’s working class in general.
Lots of advice from various quarters on how to be as safe as possible under an authoritarian regime.
The election stressed me out more than any before, but the two weeks since have aged me in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve always looked and acted (by societal standards) younger than my age, and I haven’t felt much different in my body from the person I was twenty years ago. But lately I’ve wondered if the various passing aches I’ve attributed to other causes aren’t really a sign of my age. If the lapses in memory, which are more frequent, are a sign of encroaching senility. If I’m just as fat old woman sitting on a couch, cursing the kids and dreaming of better times. I have become my father, though still stronger than he was, I think. My husband says if my father were still around, this election would have killed him. He’s right, too.
Except for checking in on particular groups, I’ve stayed off social media. Especially Twitter, which can be a pit of adders if you don’t tread carefully. People of all persuasions are willing to speak in harsher terms there than they might elsewhere, I’ve noticed. Snark is rampant. So are claims of tone policing and “marginalized people can’t be bullies,” which is patently untrue. Anyone can be a bully. People who carry grave hurt are often particularly good ones.
I cried for a week after the election, and I’ve cried many days since. So have most of the women I know. (Yesterday my husband said he wanted to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I told him that was okay, he should cry if he needed to. He said he couldn’t remember how.) On social media, my tears of often dismissed, either indirectly or when the speaker refers to a group of which I’m part in general terms: “The fact that this outcome shocks you proves how privileged you are. My marginalized group knew all along how bad it is; you just didn’t listen.”
It’s not shock that moves me to tears. I have my own marginalizations: sexual assault survivor, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed, financially insecure. Living in a rural, white area where the main two employers closed their doors in the last year and the message boards are full of screeds about “Obummer’s war on coal,” and the persecution of Christians, and the liberal elites with their need to control everything, I never took it for granted Hillary Clinton would sweep to victory. To me the election boiled down to an obvious truth: If Hillary Clinton won, though she might not be perfect, we’d be okay for the next four years. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “Voting is a chess move, not a valentine.” If Donald Trump won we definitely would NOT be okay. None of us. Not women, white or otherwise. Not my family and friends of color. Not the disabled, or the LGBTQ+ community. Not even the people who voted for him. And yes, I ran across more than a handful who voted him because they’d rather the world burn to ash than try to fix it. I always had to wonder if these people saw themselves burn, or if they imagined watching from the top of the heap, unaffected by what they’d put into motion. I suspect the latter. A certain kind of white male never bears the brunt of what they put into motion. It’s the rest of us who do.
The high potential for failure is what stressed me out so much in the weeks and days before the election. It’s what caused me to dip into my husband’s Valium prescription at times and turn to the Scotch bottle at others. It’s why I cracked dark jokes about the Apocalypse, which I was terrified would come to pass. And when they did come to pass, it wasn’t shock that I felt. It was despair. I had hoped so hard that we were better than this. Smarter than this. More compassionate. I had prayed to whatever gods happened to be around that the crowds at the Trump rallies represented a small minority. The election results dashed that hope to pieces, and I take little comfort in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. A 51%-49% split is far too narrow to suit me. With such deep differences, how will we ever find a place to meet?
My conservative brother-in-law asked my husband the same question the other day. He voted for Trump. He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, but he knew only two candidates stood a chance of winning and, in the end, Hillary Clinton represented “everything he was against.” He wondered why people who disagree with liberals as to policy are now being characterized as racists and bigots. If I still spoke to him (I blocked him on social media during the 2012 election cycle), I’d like to scream at him that policy has nothing to do with it; that Donald Trump never made any coherent statement of policy at all, but riled his supporters up against immigrants and people of color and demonized his main rival. How is this policy? But Clinton reached out to marginalized people and supported women’s bodily autonomy. That, my brother-in-law says, was his main sticking point; he’s against abortion in any form. He has three daughters. I keep wondering, if one of them were expecting a much wanted child and found out in the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy that her child wouldn’t live, would probably not survive gestation, wouldn’t he want her to have a choice of what to do? Or would he doom her to walk around for sixteen weeks, a whole four months, knowing her child was dead inside her? Having lost both my children early, I can say for a certainty such a situation would have driven me out of my mind with grief.
Two of his daughters, by the way, are married to Black men and have mixed race sons. And he voted for a man who wants to institute racial profiling and stop and frisk laws. How could he do that? How would he feel if it were one of his sons-in-law, one of his grandsons, who got pulled over by a cop for “fitting the profile,” and shot for no cause? Is he so secure in the notion that bad things don’t happen to good people? If the cop claimed later he “felt threatened,” would my brother-in-law think that was enough?
A lot of our differences are of religious origin; BIL is an Evangelical Christian and we are farthest thing from it. 83% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I cannot fathom why, and neither can most other Christians of my acquaintance, Evangelicals among them. How can people who claim to honor Jesus Christ choose a man who lies, who preaches hatred, who sows division, who admits to being a serial rapist? It seems to boil down to the belief that Christians are being persecuted under the current administration. Even though I know the reasoning, it boggles my mind. It seems obvious to me that if you want to teach your children that the Earth was literally created in seven days and is only 4,000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and co-existed with humankind, you are free to do that. But not on the public dime because it’s faith, not science. It’s clear to me that if you run a business that’s open to the public, you are required by law to serve all the public whether or not your religion agrees with the way they live their lives. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not bake wedding cakes for, or rent your venue to, or arrange flowers for, or photograph gay people, nay, not at their weddings or celebrations, or in any other place, for such is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” Kosher delis aren’t allowed to refuse service to goyim because we don’t wear yarmulkes. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. Evangelicals seem unable to see that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to force your religious views on others,” and when you point it out they cry persecution. It’s baffling to me, as much as the claims that “America was founded as a Christian nation” when one can cite document after document disproving such a statement, and Freedom of Religion was written into our Constitution. And it really doesn’t matter that at the time of the founding, Christianity of one form or another was the religion of most of the West, and it was probably inconceivable to many that other religions would become so prominent. At the time of the founding, only white, male land owners were allowed to vote or hold citizenship. Do we want to return to those strictures as well? At times, I think some do. Or they conveniently forget the parts of the original Constitution that don’t fit into their world view.
But to return to the original question: With a population roughly divided in half as to the way to proceed, and those halves near as makes no difference to polar opposites in stance, how do we ever find a meeting place? Some say it’s incumbent on the Left to reach out to and persuade those on the Right, which has quite a lot of the Left justifiably angry. It always seems to fall to the Left to be reasonable, though I know those on the Right would disagree with me there. Compromising with mule-headed Conservatives has dragged the Left more and more toward the center, until most of our politicians are on a level with Nixon and Reagan. Some would disagree with that, too (my BIL says the Republican party has swayed too far Left for him; what he means by this, I have no idea whatsoever), but you can look up and compare the policies. How loud does the Left have yell that we’re all humans and all deserve the same civil rights before the Right agrees? I’m sure many individuals agree–even my BIL claims to be against mass deportation and instituting a Muslim registry. There seems, however, to be a cosmic disconnect between the individuals and the philosophy, between claiming an idea and putting it into practice.
Many classify the divide as between Urban and Rural, and if you look at a county-by-county map of votes cast, this seems to bear out. It reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated book, The World Inside. I read it long ago, but essentially America’s population is divided between City dwellers who lead rather decadent lives in skyscrapers, and the farmland communities in between, where the inhabitants practice rather bizarre rituals. I hate to think this prophetic, although I, along with many of my circle, don’t see a way we can bring such disparate views of the country into a unified whole. We’ve begun to voice the once-unthinkable: Maybe this country doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge there need to be two, or many. I don’t see how this could be possible. Given the lack of clear geographic lines along which to form borders any division would force people out of their homes. And Urban and Rural areas have a symbiotic relationship; one can’t survive without the goods and services of the other. Negotiating trade agreements would be a nightmare.
Living in a Rural area, I can sympathize with some of the sentiment. We don’t have many of the advantages of an Urban environment. Jobs are low-paying and hard to come by even if you have a good education, which many lack. If the main employer of blue-collar labor shuts down, everyone suffers. I don’t blame scared people for wishing for a return to the “good old days;” however, I know that those good old days, when a person could make a good living and support a family with a high school education, were only attainable for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. I think when people rally to the cry of “Make America Great Again,” that’s what they want: The dream they’ve been denied. Giving up on a dream is hard. It’s easier to cast blame on one group or another and reach for simple (though not easy) solutions than it is to change an ingrained system of thought. Though Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are part of the American mythos, most of the populace are not innovators or entrepreneurs. They’re more secure in the assurance that everyone knows their place. Now everything is topsy-turvy, and it frightens them.
A little while ago, my husband came back from a gig with his Blues band and told me about a conversation he’d had with his buddy, the guitarist. His friend had mentioned reading of a college professor who said “Any white person living in this society is racist,” and how it had put him off. My husband took the opportunity to clarify, explaining how when a certain group of people has power, they tend to construct their society around themselves, paying attention only to the things that matter to them, which pushes people who don’t fit the model further and further to the margins. So, in this case, whether or not a white person actively holds racist views, they benefit from a racist society in ways people of other races don’t. And that, my husband went on, is what’s meant by privilege. He managed to get intersectionality in there, too. His friend understood; in fact, he said it was the first time any of that stuff made sense.
We need more conversations like that and fewer recriminations. But as long as people hold fear and pain close to their hearts and come to the table with minds unwilling to stretch and ears unwilling to hear, I doubt they’ll ever take place.
I’m writing this post in mid-October. It’s more suited to late January or early February, for reasons that will become plain. I may hold off and publish it then. More likely, I’ll write it and publish it immediately. That’s my usual MO: I get an idea, spit it out, and release it into the world. Actually, I’m not so sure any of us will be here come February, and I want to go on record with this moment of clarity over a question I’ve wrestled with a long time.
When my husband was still teaching (a career he yet hopes to return to some day), he would sometimes tell his teenage male students, “There are three dates you have to remember when you’re in a relationship: Your girlfriend’s birthday, your anniversary, and Valentine’s Day.” I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the way this humorously-intentioned advice reinforces the stereotype of men as lovable bumblers incapable of remembering significant details and focus on the teenage males’ inevitable response:
“But why-y-y-y-y?? What makes Valentine’s day so important? It’s just a day!! Why do I have to do special things that day? I mean, she knows I care about her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be with her!”
My husband has also asked me this question over the years. With us, it’s delved into the social and political implications of a manufactured holiday: Why do women expect men to make such a big deal out of it, even men they’ve been with for years? Don’t we know it’s a marketing ploy? If you want those things, aren’t you falling into the trap of perpetuating patriarchal gender norms? How can you be a feminist and want a romantic Valentine’s Day? And for years, I have been at a loss to answer. I’ve struggled with my wish to be acknowledged in what I believe to be a way that reinforces a lot of societal ills and stereotypes about gender. I’ve been deathly afraid that my desire to be shown special attention, my desire for a celebration of love, has marked me as a Bad Feminist.
Right now, though, all those questions boil down to the same adolescent protest: “But why-y-y-y-y?” And I have an answer:
Because you don’t get to think that the mere fact of your bodily presence is enough because you’re a man. Because women of all ages consistently and constantly go out of their way to make things nice for their partners, whether this looks like listening to them talk about subjects in which they have little interest, or debating about what dress they’re going to wear on a special occasion, or doing more than their share of the work of keeping the environment livable. Because women are required to do more than just show up, and suffer when they stop putting in the extra mile.
Lately–and I mean in the last year or so–I’ve seen more and more women talk about how they do nice things for themselves, not to benefit the male gaze. Usually this comes in conversations about catcalling and other unwanted male attention: Some dude bro says, “If you didn’t want to be noticed, you shouldn’t have worn that pretty dress,” and a woman responds with “I dress for myself, not for you.” My gods, you’d think the men had been robbed. They cannot stand it when women talk about doing things for themselves rather than the men in the world. It’s even worse if you reject cultural beauty standards altogether. How dare you make yourself unattractive? You simply can’t win.
But men still think all they have to do is show up. “She knows I love her. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
News flash, guys: You are not that special.
I get that the rituals of a different time are confusing and maybe seem irrelevant in a changing world. In my parents’ time, in my in-laws’ time, relationships between middle class cis het couples followed a (relatively) clear course: Courtship, which was mainly led by the man, I believe; proposal, marriage, a couple kids. The man as the breadwinner, the woman as the caregiver. Probably then the ritual of giving your wife a box of chocolates and a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day–or going out to dinner as a couple, or whatever–served as a mark of appreciation and a reaffirmation of the connubial bond. But the late 60s began the process of throwing off the chains of the 50s. My gods, women have careers now. They can ask men out! They have sex without being married and still demand respect as human beings! Geez, isn’t that enough? WHY DO YOU STILL WANT THAT OUTDATED BOX OF CHOCOLATES?
Despite the loud and persistent denial of certain male-identifying people, the women’s movement has never been about just women. Challenging patriarchal norms has benefited men, too. You don’t have to wear the stiff suits and ties all the time, just as we don’t have to wear skirts and heels. (Unfortunately gender-based dress codes have not yet accepted men in skirts.) You can grow long hair, get your ears pierced. You don’t have to be the sole support of a family. You can be a stay-at-home dad if that suits you and your partner. You don’t have to repress your emotions. You can not want to have sex all the time. You do not have to subscribe to the toxic models of masculinity that have made men’s lives so hard.
But, and there’s always a but, you do have to stop being so full of yourselves. You have to show up. You have to participate. You do not get to park your ass in the easy chair and say that’s enough. “Of course I love you, honey! I married you didn’t I?” doesn’t cut it. Don’t pass it off on being unable to articulate your feelings. Exhibit some learning behavior.
Women are fucking tired. And part of the reason we’re tired is that so many men have taken women’s progress and the changes we’ve initiated in society to mean they can be lazy. Yes, you can do something other than go “into business” and still be considered a contributing member of society rather than a deviant (provided you have enough of certain types of privilege, which I’m not even going into here). You do not have to strive toward the house in the suburbs and the 2.5 beautiful children. But there are consequences to whatever you choose, and one of the consequences of wanting to be in a relationship is doing the work. Part of the work is active participation in whatever rituals you and your partner find important. If a romantic Valentine’s day isn’t important to either of you, fine; rituals change. You need at least to discuss it, and it wouldn’t hurt if you were the one to broach the subject. Far too often, women are left with the responsibility of bringing up topics that men would rather ignore.
And please, don’t with the manly-man “emotions are beyond me” shit. I already told you, we’ve worked hard to begin to build a world where men don’t have to suffer such constraints, and we’re sick to death of the “Women Are from Venus/Men Are from Mars” crap. For too long women, and LGBTQ+ people, and People of Color, have borne the burden of speaking the language of (mostly) white, cis, het men and moving through a world geared towards white, cis, het men’s wishes. It’s about damn time white, cis, het men got in the game.
This post is probably making a few people reading it extremely uncomfortable. Good.
In the end, the answer to the question “But why-y-y-y?” is very simple: Because your partner wants it from you. That should be more than enough. We are not things for your amusement, like your X-Box or your flat screen TV. We are humans, and it is perfectly fine and normal for us to ask for what we want. And if you have a problem with that, it’s on you, not on us.
So, the other night, I posted this Tumblr meme to my Facebook page:
I both like and dislike it. I like it because it uses superheroes many, if not most, people are familiar with as examples of struggle and perseverance. This is something Geek-minded folks, who may not find more common inspirational memes accessible, can relate to. I dislike it because I dislike inspirational memes in general. At their best, they reduce significant struggles to simplistic terms. At their worst, they become “inspiration porn,” a nasty internet phenomenon that hurts all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. Bearing this in mind, when I shared the meme, I said I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or whether it made me want to shove my fist through a wall. Soon after posting, I went to bed.
When I checked Facebook the next day, a couple of my friends (with one exception all women with a variety of chronic illnesses) had commented. Nothing major, but the general consensus was “Fist through wall.” Several mentioned that the characters were fictional (IMO, not a stumbling block to taking inspiration from them), or that at least two are fabulously wealthy–a reality which, if it doesn’t solve problems, does, in fact, make them infinitely easier to bear. One friend noted that the list doesn’t include any woman superheroes, which made her think that it was geared toward “TEH MENZ.”
Oh, my. Haven’t we learned by now the danger of pointing our sexism and misogyny in Geek culture? Apparently not. Not long after my friend posted this last comment, this happened:
A male friend came onto the scene. I think it’s relevant to point out that he isn’t a close friend; he’s someone I picked up from one game or another and kept after I stopped playing because I genuinely like him. But I don’t know him beyond Facebook, and he doesn’t know me. On the other hand, I’ve been extremely close to the women involved for years.
So this male friend starts off with how he thinks people on the Internet just take things “way too seriously” sometimes, and the meme was meant to be a positive message against suicide, and that’s all. And then he goes on about every character mentioned, and how the creator probably picked ones that resonated with him, and how comic book characters have always been sources of inspiration and on and on AND ON FOR ALMOST 1000 WORDS.
One of the original woman commenters, who wrote her B.A. thesis on censorship in comic books, replied with a refutation of some of the things the man said and pointed out that the meme addresses movie versions of the characters rather than the comic book versions, which made his examples inapplicable. He replied by saying she was still “missing the point” in that we were “nitpicking whether these heroes were good enough to convey the message.” And on for another 1000 words or so, describing various iterations of the characters in Golden and Silver Age comics.
That’s where I stepped in and said enough. I told him IMO he was the one missing the point, which was that no one was trying to nitpick whether the heroes were “good enough” to convey a positive message, but that we dislike inspirational memes in general, that all of us have various chronic illnesses which are more than a matter of “just suck it up and keep fighting,” and that he took the entire conversation out of context. Plus, where the heck did he get that it’s an anti-suicide meme, because I don’t see that anywhere. I actually may not have stated things as clearly as that. Yesterday the whole incident had me so livid I could hardly bear to read the thread; today as I write this and look at it, it all seems way less loaded. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned that I have an “Always Keep Fighting” sweatshirt which I love to death (Thank you, Jared Padelecki). Another woman friend got into the fray, mentioning that the meme almost offended her because how the Hell was her experience supposed to be comparable with a superhero’s?
Dude comes back with ANOTHER lengthy, point-by-point essay full of this, that, and the other, by the end of which he’d kind of admitted that he flew off the handle because he’s seen a lot of nastiness around this particular meme, and said he considered it anti-suicide because he got it from a suicide prevention page, and even managed to apologize in words. Kudos to him. But he still thought my one friend was missing the point.
Anyway, that really should have been the end of it, but later my feed barfs up a lengthy status update from him. This guy’s status updates are rarely shorter than 1000 words, and I mostly enjoy them, especially when he takes down inaccurate religious memes. He and my dad would have loved each other. Well, this one started with how he doesn’t generally agree with the Right about political correctness ruining everything, but you can be overly critical of innocuous stuff, and THERE’S THIS ANTI-SUICIDE MEME…. etc, and “more than one person who shared it even stated that they didn’t know if they loved it or hated it.” *clutches pearls*
Okay, enough. I restrained myself all night and most of today. Done now.
Dude, first off, do you really not understand the concept of irony, or can you just not apply it to yourself? You come into a thread where people are having a relatively light-hearted discussion about their problems with a meme and proceed to lecture them AT LENGTH about “taking innocuous things too seriously,” to the point where it took me telling you to back the fuck off to get you to disengage, and then you complain about it to the public? Who’s taking things too seriously now?
In the second place, I have no idea if you’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation, but I doubt it, because if you had, you’d know it’s FAR from innocuous. It’s a fucking killer. People lose the fight every single day. I’ve attempted suicide more than once, which is why I have a fucking semicolon tattooed on my wrist–NOT because I love proper punctuation, although I do. So have several of my dear friends, and let me tell you, when you get to that point it takes more than a shitty meme about metahumans to motivate you to keep breathing. Fuck you for dismissing the pain of that. And fuck you twice for taking issue with people who have to find reasons to go on living every day pointing out that your “innocuous” meme is problematic. In case you hadn’t heard, you can like things and STILL critique problematic elements in them.
In your extended status of yesterday evening, you cite a problem in the LGBT+ community of safe spaces designed for that community (the gay male community in particular) being welcoming to others not of that community (straight women in particular), who then complained that the safe space wasn’t designed for them and, in effect, tore it down while while being unwelcoming to those who had sheltered them when they built their own safe spaces. Back to irony, you did the exact same thing on my post: You came into a space that was not yours and insisted it play by your rules. In addition, you took exception to people who have actually attempted suicide not loving your “positive message” against it. I thought you were better than that, honestly. If a marginalized group has issues with a piece of media purporting to address that group, then you need to shut up and listen instead of getting all butthurt when people in the group say “THIS DOESN’T WORK.”
But you know what? I think it boils down to sexism. I think you saw some women discussing something they found problematic, and I think you saw my friend’s reference to TEH MENZ, and you could not help but jump in to mansplain to us that we were the ones taking things too seriously and taking things out of context and whatever-the-hell else you felt we wimminz weren’t “getting” because you couldn’t STAND for us to have opinions that differed from yours. It would have been easy enough not to engage–as I chose not to engage beyond one comment (and okay; I’m lying, it wasn’t easy at all, but hey, KEEP FIGHTING THOSE IMPULSES LIKE BATMAN). It would have been easy enough to let it go, to say, well, these people have a different take, this meme doesn’t work for them. But you didn’t. You had to let us know just HOW WRONG you thought we were, and how much better you know about all things superhero than we do. Because misogyny.
I don’t know what you meant to achieve aside from parading your own knowledge, but I can tell you one thing you did achieve: I trust you less than I did yesterday morning. As I said above, I enjoy your rants. I enjoy your takedowns of idiotic memes. But having been on the receiving side of one, I now have to wonder how many times, when you’ve complained about people just not understanding, you’ve painted an inaccurate picture putting yourself in a more positive, and them in a more negative, light than objectivity dictated. How many times have people on the Right with whom you’ve interacted been far more civil and more articulate than you let on? Because I’ve learned you’re loath to admit wrong, and you love having the last word.
I’m going to post this on Facebook. I’m going to post it to a restricted list you are no longer part of, because I don’t trust you anymore. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because you can’t. And in the event you stumble across this anyway, through a mutual acquaintance or just through the randomness of the Internet, I leave you with this reward:
If you have a chronic illness or a disability (physical or mental) you may be nodding right now. If you’re able bodied and neurotypical, you may be puzzled. What the hell does it mean to “Perform an Illness?”
Maybe I should have led with, “I’m tired of the needto perform illness.” Because it’s not just me. It seems like this past week I’ve seen an unusual number of articles, blog posts, and tweets about performing illness, from this discussion of what constitutes a “real” migraine to my friend being told she doesn’t “Look Sick” (a classic), to a couple of people writing about how tired they are of curating media presence in order to appear to be “doing” their illness “right.”
I’m not the first person to write on this topic. I have no doubt I will not be the last. If you’re here, you probably have some interest in what I have to say, or are at least curious. So here’s my 2 p.
First off, for latecomers to the discussion: What does it mean to “perform” an illness?
Simply put, performing an illness is aligning the way you present as a chronically ill person with the expectations of somebody who is not yourself. It can also be aligning your presentation to conform to the expectations of a group you’re part of. (I’ll be addressing this eventually, probably in a different blog post.) What your performance looks like depends on context, and it may be affected by things like the identity of the individual or group as well as your own reasons for performing. It might look like moaning a little when you’re enduring a migraine so your partner understands they can’t expect you to cook dinner. Even people whose illnesses aren’t chronic may do it, exaggerating hoarseness and sniffles over the phone so the boss believes it when they call in sick.
The need to perform illness always stems from ableism, whether internal or external. Part of any privilege is the tendency of people with more power to define people with less. Thus, you get white people defining what it means to be Black, thin people defining what it means to be fat, and able people defining what it means to be sick and/or disabled. These definitions are invariably rooted in stereotypes, because they’re created by people who are outside the communities they presume to address.
Applying stereotypes to living, breathing human beings is always damaging, but a unique aspect of the stereotypes about illness is that ill and disabled people can sometimes find benefit in “playing to” them. The stereotype of, for example, fat people as lazy, overindulgent, ignorant of the benefits of “healthy” food, and a drain on resources is overwhelmingly negative. A fat person can alleviate some of the negativity of the stereotype by “playing to” a slightly different one, the “Good Fatty,” i.e., a fat person actively engaged in not being fat through exercise, adopting “healthy” eating habits, undergoing surgery, or a combination. In the case of the ill or disabled person, performing illness to suit preconceived notions of what it looks like usually has results that appear positive. You can gain sympathy, for example, or simply get a rest from having the validity of your illness questioned. The flip side is that failing to perform your illness in a way that fits the stereotype can result in negative consequences. A person who lays aside a needed mobility aid for a short period of time may encounter hateful judgments about whether or not they’re pretending to be ill. Likewise, a person needing accommodation in the workplace may be deprived of it if they don’t need it every single time, or a person with a mental illness may be accused of faking it unless they consistently act irrational, depressed, or whatever other way is considered normative for the illness.
To make matters worse, even people who should know better, like doctors and advocates, can practice ableism when they adhere dogmatically to diagnostic criteria. “Official” designations in the DSM and other resources might be helpful in determining what code will persuade an insurance company to approve treatment (and the need to gain approval from people whose main concern is cost rather than health comes with its own set of problems). However, when dealing with real people, it’s important to remember the experience of illness rarely goes by the book. Some symptoms may be common; others less so. Some diseases manifest differently in different people, or have different forms. We don’t know everything there is to know about illness, whether physical or mental. New syndromes are being identified all the time. The best way to determine whether a person is sick and/or disabled is to listen to that person. Of course, this often doesn’t happen. The Western world has an almost pathological fear of being taken advantage of, of people getting things they “don’t deserve,” and this plays out in its treatment of sick and disabled people.
Here’s an example from my personal experience: A number of years back, during a major depressive episode, it occurred to me that I suffered a real mental illness that prevented me from engaging in the world in a lot of ways, and I might qualify for disability support.
I need to pause here to say that writing the last sentence triggered a LOT of anger in me, for a LOT of reasons. I started experiencing symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder in early adolescence. I developed an eating disorder so severe I almost died from it, and doctors told my parents at least once that I know of that I had a mental illness so severe I “would never be able to take care of” myself [whatever that meant]. Yet the reality of my illness didn’t sink in until I was past forty. I don’t think this is due to the illness, itself. I knew at a young age that something odd was going on in my brain and I begged for treatment. But Western culture is so ableist that it actively encourages sick people to ignore their experience when it prevents them from conforming to expectations. You can see this in every television commercial for cold medicine where a miserable, coughing, sneezing, feverish person downs a magic elixir or pops a couple pills and goes right back to the grind, symptoms relieved. I cannot understand why this is promoted as positive behavior. It doesn’t serve people; it serves employers who can’t be bothered to treat workers as human beings. There may be times when it’s absolutely vital to attend a meeting or intervene in a crisis despite illness, but in all honesty, those times are few and far between.
Anyway. I decided to apply for disability. The process of doing this in the US is horrendous. It’s based on that pathological fear of people getting something for “nothing,” and the powers that be require sick people to jump through a lot of hoops to prove they’re really sick (unless you’re on your death bed; I have a few friends who were granted disability pretty fast when they were not expected to live more than a few months).
I filled out the on line application and it was denied. I learned later that applications are pretty much routinely denied, as a way to sort out those who are “really serious” about pursuing the matter from those who apply on a whim. Since the application is long and difficult to complete in the first place, that seems excessive, but that’s the way it works. I appealed. The appeals process stretched out over two years. It involved gathering documentation from every conceivable source, going back for ten years. Every doctor I’d seen in that time had to provide a statement. My therapist recommended a good lawyer. Without him, I never would have gotten through the appeal. Even with his help, I was tempted to give up more than once.
Because of ableist attitudes, my doctors disagreed as to whether or not my illness constituted a disability. Those who knew me best asserted that it did. Others, who’d seen me rarely or only on good days, said it didn’t. My psychiatrist at the time proved the biggest stumbling block, because despite the facts that I’d never been able to participate in a “normal” job more than eighteen months, had never worked full time at all, and participating in standard workplace environments made me verifiably psychotic and suicidal, he claimed I could handle a job if I “really wanted to.” That is, because I didn’t present as irrational during my meds checks (fifteen minutes once every couple months, the only time he saw me), I was not disabled.
I had to have a hearing before a judge and a panel of experts. My lawyer advised me to let my hair grow out, not to care for my appearance, and to show up in sweatpants. That is, I had to perform my disability right. Putting on what I considered the appropriate clothes to appear before a judge would have been a mark against me. Breaking down in tears during the hearing was a plus. The fact that I’d managed to graduate college was a minus, because people with severe mental illnesses don’t complete college. Etcetera.
In the end, the judge decided in my favor. At this point, some readers may be angry because I “gamed the system.” I’m angry because the system as it is required gaming for me to get my needs met. At the same time as I was going through all this, a friend in the UK was suffering a major depressive episode, too. She went to her doctor, told him what she was going through, and he gave her a slip of paper saying she needed disability support because she couldn’t work due to her mental condition. That was IT.
My experience is one example of the need to perform illness for the able. The consequences of requiring sick and disabled people to perform stretch much further and have an extreme negative impact on our lives. They’ll continue to do so as long as able people are the ones defining disability. One thing I notice a lot is how much the very idea of disability, at least in the US, depends on the normalization of unhealthy aspects of capitalist/corporate culture, like quelling your symptoms with cold medicine so you can go back to work. The idea is, if there’s any way at all you CAN conform, then you’re not considered disabled, no matter how much physical or mental distress you might be in. In this culture, the only way to “earn a living” (in itself a horrific concept) is to work at a paying “job.” Yet jobs providing a steady source of income take limited forms. Even with accommodation, many with chronic physical and mental illness cannot participate in these forms. We may be suited to other work where remuneration is less automatic (or doesn’t exist at all). But there’s always the fear that if you make too much noise about this other work, you’ll sacrifice the support systems that allow you to do it at all.
Here’s another personal example: I’m an author. I’ve published six books in my Caitlin Ross series (gratuitous promo: check out a sample!) As a self-publisher, I do virtually all the work on every book myself. I do the formatting, the interior design, and the editing, in addition to writing the numerous drafts of every volume. Some days I work twelve hours at a stretch. Other days, I can’t work at all due to one or another of my illnesses.
I’m not independently wealthy. The ONLY reason I can engage in my career is my disability (well, that an an understanding partner). The extra $400 a month (yep, that’s all) and the insurance covering my medications assuages the guilt of not “earning a living” enough so that I can focus on writing. Yes, some (most) authors work at full time paying jobs aside from writing. I cannot do this. Working at a job-job takes so much out of me that I simply cannot do anything else. I wish I didn’t have to explain this every time, but I feel like I do because of voices both internal and external that scream “BUT SO-AND-SO WROTE [Bestseller[ WHILE WORKING 12-HOUR SHIFTS AT WALMART; WHY CAN’T YOU?”
Anyway. I live in fear that some government official will see those six novels, or get wind of the days I work a lot, and decide, “If she can do that, she can go get a job at the gas station down the street,” and cut my disability. Because in the mind of an able person, time is time and effort is effort, and what’s the big deal? Even my last therapist made cracks about “people on disability hanging out scribbling in the coffee shop instead of doing something productive,” as if the ability to do one is the same as the ability to do the other. Sick and disabled people are constantly walking this tightrope between performing the disability well enough to be believed and maintaining quality of life, because to able people having any quality of life at all is a privilege to which they alone can aspire.
Really, as far as I can see, the only way of doing away with the need to perform illness is to redefine society’s relationship to it and make room for people to live their lives in the best way they can. It would require a sea change in our relationship to the very concepts of ability and disability, and it would start with listening to sick and disabled people and believing what they say about their experience.
I suppose that’s too much to hope for, but I can dream.
A few hour after posting about my problems with apathy, I made the mistake of clicking on a link to an article that absolutely infuriated me. Which just goes to show you should be careful what you wish for. The article in question was one The Atlantic published a month or so ago, titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings Hurt Mental Health on College Campuses.” Something like that. I’m not going to link to it, because if I look at that smug page one more time I’m going to throw my monitor though the window. You can Google it for yourself, if Google’s new logo doesn’t offend you too much.
The article maddened me so much that I posted a biting comment on the article itself, which I don’t often do. Now it’s two in the morning, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Yay! I get to rant at length on my blog while listening to 80s German Technopop on Spotify! It’s my favorite thing to do when I’d rather be sleeping the sleep of reason.
Anyway. the article was the usual mishmash of “The kids today!” and “Boo hoo, someone’s asking me to think before speaking!” and “But academic freedom!” combined with an extra dose of “Two different groups of the same minority don’t agree on what constitutes a microagression so they must not exist!” And then, just to prove how serious the issue is, they added a long, long, long, so long explanation of why this kind of “coddling” actually is a detriment to good mental health, complete with cherry-picked quotes from (almost exclusively male) “Mental Health Professionals,” and, I don’t know, I couldn’t get any farther because I was too occupied with yelling, “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG FUCKWITS!” at my phone.
Neither of the writers, by the way, was a Mental Health Professional (TM). One was the CEO of something called the “Academic Liberty Foundation” (absolutely NO AGENDA THERE) and the other was a journalist of some kind, I think; the red haze before my eyes prevented me from reading his bio fully. And what the article demonstrated to me was that these were two guys who are INCREDIBLY DISTRAUGHT that they might have to take into account the fact that other people’s lived experiences are valid, and that NEWS FLASH! even people who share the same racial heritage might disagree on things because they’ve had DIFFERENT experiences.
I know a lot of academics. I know a lot of people who work in mental health and mental health advocacy, and, more important for this rant, I know a TON of people with various mental health issues. Just this morning I kind of went off on one of them, explaining that trigger warnings are not censorship and are not a wholesale invitation to disengage from discussion, study, the media, and so forth. What they ARE is a courtesy. I doubt there’s a single person in this country who has not watched a news program in which a serious anchor person has announced, “The following segment contains images of a graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised” before cutting to the next film of a mass murder or exploration of a serial killer’s den. That’s a trigger warning. It tells you something difficult or challenging is coming up, so take care of yourself. Every 4th of July I see a meme about how important it is to be considerate of military veterans when setting off fireworks, because random explosions in the street in the middle of the night DO NOT ENTERTAIN THEM. That’s a kind of trigger warning, too. No one objects to these. But when it comes to college kids saying, “Gee, can I have a heads up if this novel contains a graphic depiction of rape and dismemberment?” everyone goes mad because those lazy kids are looking for ways to avoid the assigned reading.
Unfortunately, the tendency to reject and deride the mental health concerns of young people is nothing new. I, myself, once met with a psychiatrist who responded to the information that I was suicidal and cut myself with a razor blade almost every night with the incredibly dismissive, “You’re trying to get out of doing your homework, so go away and don’t bother me anymore, ‘kay?” And yet suicide is the third leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24, second leading cause of death in people 25 to 34. CDC chart here. Isn’t it about time we start taking this seriously instead of calling them “over dramatic” and condemning their concerns as “excuses?”
Early on, The Atlantic article informed the reader that “According to the most-basic (sic) tenets of psychology, helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided.” They put the statement in a block quote, so you’d be sure to feel its authority. BULL SHIT. For fuck’s sake, I have a degree in psychology and I never heard of any such “most-basic” tenet. When treating an irrational phobia, sometimes a program of gradual desensitization is indicated. GRADUAL. You wouldn’t abandon a person with a snake phobia in the reptile house at the zoo without warning. You’d weigh the pros and cons, examine where the person was in their therapy, make the necessary preparations for them to be safe. You’d allow the person to have boundaries, which would certainly include being able to say “enough” or leave when they got overwhelmed. <<<<<This is the same as giving a trigger warning. Furthermore, in cases of trauma, forcing a person to confront the source of the trauma in any form IS DAMAGING. It doesn’t help them adjust. It doesn’t cause them to say, “Oh, that passage about the rape of Leda in Ovid isn’t so bad; I GET IT NOW!” It re-traumatizes them. It makes things worse.
But, the writers claim, seeking to avoid potentially triggering subject matter leads to what they term a culture of “vindictive protectiveness.” Can’t you just see them sitting around coming up with that term and patting themselves on the back about how cool and profound that is? What they mean is, allowing people to determine their own safety and their own limits encourages them to punish anyone who disagrees with them. This sounds like so much projection to me. “You want me to be considerate? YOU THINK I’M A BAD PERSON!” I don’t know. Or maybe it’s punishment when someone actually calls you on your dismissive treatment of their mental health issues? Or calls you on being sexist, racist, or homophobic? Please, look at yourself first.
After that came the layman’s guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which the authors propose as the solution to all this problem of trigger warnings because when you teach people their discomfort and fear is irrational it will miraculously disappear! Yeah, NO. In the first place, this is another way of invalidating a person’s lived experience. In the second, ALL this shit people are now bringing to the attention of the world at large is NOTHING NEW. It’s just that now more people feel empowered to speak up. When you propose CBT in this instance, you’re telling people you don’t want to hear about the experiences they’ve had that make you uncomfortable. And in the third place, CBT is NOT A PANACEA. Yes, it’s useful to learn to examine how your mind works, when you might leap to inaccurate conclusions or assume things that aren’t true. But for fuck’s sake, no one believes they’re in actual danger from reading a rape myth in Ovid. CBT isn’t applicable. And I have news for you: depression and trauma alter your brain. Thinking nice thoughts doesn’t change it back. Thoughts are not emotions. I don’t know a person who has stopped having a mood disorder or a form of PTSD by practicing positive thinking. And that’s not even to mention the everyday trauma that some people suffer just by getting along in the modern world. Where rapists are most often someone you know, women literally do not know when it’s appropriate to be afraid and when it’s not. (Look up the concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist.) People of Color live in a climate of systemic racism. LGBTQ+ people live in real danger of getting beat up and killed. This is not a thing CBT will solve. The least we can do is warn someone who’s already having a difficult time of challenging material.
The icing on the cake was that the whole article was written in a horrible, condescending tone. Like, you more than half expected that when you finished it, someone would pat you on the head and tell you to run along and play now, like a good, compliant child. The men have decided what to do. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it any more.
I’m sick of this conversation. Yeah, sometimes people misuse and overuse trigger warnings; I’ve been known to complain about it myself. And the same half a dozen anecdotes get trotted out over and cover again, whenever someone wants to complain that “this obsession with social justice has gone too far!” But, you know, while talking heads are MORE than eager to write extensive think pieces and analyses, I have yet to see a single valid study of what effect trigger warnings have. An actual blind study with a control group and a sample of a mixed population. Easy: Throw them into variously triggering situations. Give some of them a heads up ahead of time, and don’t give it to others. Do a survey of emotional states before and after. Until you can cite such a study, you have NO BUSINESS decreeing that trigger warnings are bad for mental health. You have no business dictating college policy, or saying anything about trigger warnings at all. Ever.
The other day, I stumbled into a volatile conversation on Twitter. I know: BIG SHOCK, right? I should have seen it coming. Well, maybe. But I didn’t. What happened was this: A friend of mine questioned whether thin privilege exists. Without knowing the context or the incident that had provoked the question (my bad, I own this), I assured her it did. Then someone I don’t know–I presume my friend does–came into the conversation to tell me my examples were bullshit. It got a bit harsh. I got upset at having my experience disregarded and disengaged.
Later, I had a private conversation with my friend in which she told me what bothers her about the concept. She had some good and valid points. I understand where she’s coming from, as much as I can. But I can’t agree with her that thin privilege doesn’t exist, or that it’s inordinately divisive to talk about it when women should be supporting each other. Unfortunately, those are things people with privilege always tend to say to avoid confronting their privilege.
For those new to the concept, “privilege” in feminist and social justice circles is the accumulated unearned advantages that a person might enjoy due to race, class, caste, or membership in any other arbitrarily elevated social group, e.g. particular body size or education level. It’s not a new concept, but it came more into the public consciousness with Peggy McIntosh’s 1990 essay, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Privilege might be as simple and seemingly inane a thing as a white person being able to buy “flesh” colored Band-Aids that match their skin tone, or it might be as significant and difficult to address as the lack of woman and PoC leads in Hollywood movies. It’s insidious and hard to confront, because rather than obviously elevating a class or population ABOVE another, it adjusts the default value to match that of the privileged. To those in a privileged class, the arbitrary elevation becomes normal, so there’s no need to question it. However, it sends a message to those outside the privileged class that they are NOT normal, and therefore have less worth.
Of course, as with any concept or theory, there are instances which contradict it. My husband and I, both white, have both been randomly stopped by police and required to show ID when walking in suburbs where we didn’t live–a thing that doesn’t commonly happen to white people. There are wealthy, educated People of Color, and poor, uneducated white folks. Some people try to use these instances to prove that privilege doesn’t exist. Really, they happen because of another thing called “Intersectionality.” Privilege runs along a huge number–maybe an infinite number–of different axes, and a person may have privilege on one or more while not having privilege on various others. For example, a person may be white, male, and Christian (privilege) and also gay, poor, and disabled (not privilege). Discussions of privilege need to take into account the intersections and their ramifications if they’re to do any good.
In working towards equality, the main idea is to include marginalized populations in the default, i.e., to redefine “normal.” This requires a certain amount of tearing down social structures which support unearned privilege, mainly through education and activism. People in privileged populations can find this difficult for a number of reasons. Confronting privilege can have the effect of taking you out of the center of your own world, which is something most people are reluctant to do. It’s difficult to swallow the truth that a reality you have always taken for granted actively hurts others. We all want to be good people, and confronting privilege makes you question that. It’s tiring and frustrating always to question yourself when you just want to wear a certain hairstyle because you like it, without thinking about cultural appropriation. As well, there is often backlash against the privileged class. For example, one popular meme, “Real women have curves,” came out of frustration at a particular body type being presented as valuable while others were devalued. But it elevates women with curves at the expense of those without. Any of these things can contribute to a person denying the existence of privilege. When various axes intersect, which is almost always, denial can easily become entrenched. An annoying thing about privilege is that the lack of it is generally more keenly felt than its presence.
Thin privilege addresses the tendency of (especially Western) society to set the default value for a “normal” body rather smaller than that a significant segment of the population inhabits. You can find some examples of how this plays out here. For examples of backlash against the concept (content warning: Fat Shaming) look here.
Since my body has been on the large side of average most of my life, the existence of thin privilege seems like a no-brainer to me. Some of my earliest memories are of being bullied for being fat. In the last few years, a medication-related weight gain has made me bigger than ever before, and it’s rubbed my face in the small definition of “normal” more than ever before. When I was of smaller proportions than I am now, I fit in our lawn chairs. Now the arms of those same chairs press against my butt. I used to climb our household ladder to get to things higher than I can reach. But that ladder is rated at 200 lbs, and now I’m not sure it’s safe. I used to enjoy taking a bath from time to time. Now I’m almost as wide as the tub.
The tub came with our house, but we bought those other things. It never occurred to me to sit in the chairs or question the ladder’s safety rating before buying them, because why would I? Even as a large woman, I fit the “normal” parameters. I never anticipated a 60-lb weight gain, never thought something beyond my control would thrust me outside those parameters. But it did. I’ve a hard time because of my weight all my life. How much harder is it, every day, for people whose bodies never fit into the “normal” range at all? Fat people hear all the time that we have no right to complain, because we “just” have to control ourselves to conform. Leaving aside the whole question of why the hell should we be required to conform in the first place, the truth is, it’s not so simple. Any number of factors can contribute to being fat, and losing weight is not, as many would have it, merely a matter of “stepping away from the cupcakes for a change.”
You know what? I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If you want to learn more about Size Acceptance as a civil rights issue and the reality of body size and health, please go read some articles here. I’ll wait for you.
Right. Back at it.
It’s an unfortunate truth that some thin people have similar experiences to fat people in several arenas. I know thin people whose doctors focus on their body size to the exclusion of every other issue, and thin people who have been bullied and called names, and thin people whose food choices are constantly remarked upon, and thin people who can’t walk into a department store and find clothes on the rack to fit them. I know thin people who have suffered all these things and more. I’ve been guilty of perpetuating some nastiness toward thin people, myself; meaculpa. The first time I heard my dance teacher say, “Nobody wants a bone but a dog, and he buries it,” I was delighted. I found it empowering. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that attitude is just as hurtful toward thin people as “Nobody will ever love a fat cow like you” is to people like me.
All those things are real things that cause pain. It’s never okay to shame someone about their body, no matter what it looks like. But the fact that it happens doesn’t negate the existence of thin privilege. Nor does a statistic that I see bandied about, “69% of the population is obese or overweight.” I’m sorry to break it to you, but a majority population can still be marginalized. Roughly 52% of the population is female, and male privilege still exists, too.
I think a lot of the situations in which fat and thin experience is similar, especially for women, can be attributed to the intersection of body size and sexism. Women are taught from an early age that our value lies in our sexual attraction, and being sexually attractive means fitting into an extremely narrow range or body types: not too fat, not too thin, neither too brawny nor too much lacking in muscle tone. To make matters worse, standards of attractiveness for women are changing all the time. In the 50s, we had Marilyn Monroe. In the 90s, we had Kate Moss, and now we have Kim Kardashian. The impossibility of perfection is enough to give any woman body issues, and it does. Women who are naturally very thin fall outside the narrow range of acceptable body size the same way women who are fat do. But I don’t notice anyone talking about the “Slenderness Epidemic.”
Another thing people use to dismiss thin privilege as a reality is the existence of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa. According to this school of thought, since people with eating disorders have troubled relationships with their bodies and endure similar meal- and body-policing to fat people, thin privilege doesn’t exist and saying that it does is “disgusting.”
This is the hill upon which my conversation the other day died, by the way. I tried to explain my point of view about this, having had an eating disorder which kept me mostly hospitalized for three years and affects my life to this day. I got called a hypocrite. That’s when I made my exit, muted the stranger who had inserted herself into my mentions, and had a good cry.
I haven’t written a lot on this blog about my struggles with anorexia, just a word here and there. I don’t really want to relive that time now. But I think in this instance I need to prove my street cred. In one form or another, it dominated my life for ten years, from the time I was fourteen until the time I was twenty-four. It’s a terrible thing to go through. Maybe it starts as a way of controlling certain aspects of life, but in the end, it controls you. I’ve read that anorexia and bulimia have some things in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe come from the same place. I think that’s true. It became much less about weight loss and body image for me than it was about the ritualistic behaviors necessary to preserving my feeling of control. Many of those behaviors started as weight loss facilitators–excessive exercise, restricted diet, rules about how and when and what I was allowed to eat. I had a page-long list of things I had to do every day, without fail. If I didn’t do them all, I was garbage. Later, when I became bulimic rather than anorexic, I had fewer rituals to fulfill, but bingeing and purging were both compulsive. Eating a single cookie rather than an entire package at a sitting was literally impossible; trying to do so filled me with indescribable fear and horror. I had to follow the whole process to the bitter end in order to get any relief.
I saw absolute control of my eating as a way to be successful when success in other areas seemed beyond me. This thought actually crossed my mind when a school mate came back to class after a hospitalization: “I bet I could do anorexia even better than her.” In a real way, I decidedto be anorexic. I don’t know if others experience this or not; in the late 70s and early 80s, when my eating disorder was at its peak, they had just come into the public consciousness and weren’t at all common. I was the only person on my psych ward being treated for an eating disorder. I’m not sure special hospitals for eating disorders even existed.
And no, having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. I experienced some thin privilege in the early stages. I could buy fashionable clothes, for example. I got a pair of riding boots I loved. I’d never been able to wear tall boots before, because the maximum standard calf circumference for women’s boots is fifteen to sixteen inches, and my calves were too big, even when I was at a “normal” weight for my height. People stopped making barfing noises when I passed them in the halls (later, they whispered, but that’s something else). Someone considered me beautiful for the first time. I had a boyfriend. For a while.
Once, when I was in college, a high school friend and I were at the dorm store. I was in my bulimic period then, and weighed around 145 lbs. My friend had one of my senior yearbook pictures in her wallet, taken when I was under 100 lbs. The clerk at the store saw it and said, “She’s gorgeous! Who is she?” While I was standing right there.
Anyway. Having an eating disorder is not a privileged existence. You lose all right to privacy. Everything you do around food is examined and questioned. Your freedom of movement is restricted. Your integrity is called into daily question. Doctors looked at nothing about me except my eating patterns. They told me constantly that my lived experience was meaningless. They threatened me with tube feeding when I didn’t meet their expectations. When I didn’t gain weight according to schedule, they accused me of purging in secret, long before I had any notion of doing so. When I denied that I did so, they accused me of lying. They did not see me as a person, but as a collection of symptoms, and when my symptoms didn’t fit the model they assumed I was untruthful, not that the symptoms didn’t apply.
I was excessively thin, and I was not privileged. And yet, I still believe in thin privilege. The perspective of years not only makes this possible, it insists that I do.
There are a couple reasons for this. The first goes back to intersectionality. The thinness of eating disorders is the bodily manifestation of a mental illness. Having a mental illness diminishes privilege, and having a severe, life-threatening mental illness diminishes it exponentially. The lack of privilege that comes with an eating disorder doesn’t fall along the body size axis; it falls along the ability/disability axis. When I was excessively thin, strangers unaware of my illness still admired me, my “willpower,” my visible collarbones, my adherence to an exercise regimen. I fit in the bathtub and in chairs with arms. I could have climbed that ladder rated at 200 lbs, had I been strong enough to climb. No, I couldn’t buy clothes that fit, not until I gained weight. But that was because I was sick.
The other major reason I believe in thin privilege despite having had an eating disorder is this: Eating disorders are the result of thin privilege in the much same way that violence toward women is the result of male privilege. Much of men’s socialization revolves around gaining and maintaining their privilege. Some men believe they have every right to subject women who threaten that privilege to harassment, beatings, rape, and even death. You can see the evidence of this on any men’s rights forum, if you can stomach it. In the same way, much of women’s socialization centers on attaining and maintaining an idealized form. Models of a specific size–thin, and these days with a fair amount of muscle tone–are on the cover of almost every magazine and feature in almost every television advertisement. Women’s magazines are full of diet plans and ways to “get your body back” after having children. Ignoring the message that thin is the appropriate way to present is all but impossible. So it’s little wonder that an increasing number of women take the pursuit of thinness to the extreme. Of course, there’s a great deal more to most eating disorders than trying to achieve thinness, and most people don’t develop them any more than most men, in these times, are violent toward women. But obsession with body size is generally how they start, and preoccupation with being thin is the most notorious symptom.
Thin privilege is real. It hurts everyone, and, like many forms of privilege taken to extreme, it can kill. That’s vastly more important to me than the idea that focusing on it is divisive. No one likes to confront privilege, but until people stop ignoring and dismissing it, nothing will change. Personally, I’d rather confront my own privilege than practice endless damage control.
I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.
So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?
Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.
I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.
Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.
#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking
The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.
#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”
Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context. If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.
#8: All Witches Are Women
No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.
#7: The Mysterious Spellbook
The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?
There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.
#6: The Magical Destiny
Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.
#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong
I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)
Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.
Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.
This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.
#4: Love Spells
I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.
In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.
#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera
This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.
So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.
While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.
Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole groupof women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a singleman doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.
#2: Tarot Cards
So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”
Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.
#1: Blood Magic
Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.
I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)
This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.