“Speed was a causeway between life and death, and you hoped you came out on the side of life.” – Rachel Kushner, The Flame Throwers
I was in New York this weekend to see my sister, and in between the museum visits and going out to dinner and watching Frozen together (the best sister movie we’ve found yet), we had a long conversation about why it is that people seem to think they know more about what your life is like than you do. And we came to the conclusion that life is too short to spend time around people who don’t validate your experiences.
You wouldn’t think this would be a radical proposition, but it seems like it is. To be clear, by “validate you experiences,” I essentially mean that someone believes you when you tell them something about your life and, if it’s something about what you think or feel, doesn’t think there’s something wrong with you for it. I also call this being a decent person, but to some people it just seems to be a completely foreign concept.
“Instead of causing each other to doubt ourselves
we need to start supporting each other.”
I don’t know how we became, as a society, so full of people who don’t validate each other’s experiences. I don’t know how it happened or why most people seem to just operate in this mode without ever questioning or even noticing it. What I do know is that it happens all the time, sometimes in little ways and sometimes in big ones.
It happens whenever you tell a friend a story of some mean thing someone did and their first reaction is, “Are you sure it was him?” or “Maybe she didn’t mean it like that?” or “Why would they do that?” or any other response that is not, “That sucks.”
It happens when someone tells you you’re getting too worked up over problems in your life. It happens when we question our friends’ decisions.
It happens when we tell people with depression they should “cheer up.”
It happens when men claim that women who complain about street harassment should “lighten up, it’s not a big deal.”
It happens when we don’t believe sexual assault survivors.
It happens when white people deny that people of color still experience widespread racism.
It happens whenever someone tries to explain something they experience and our first instinct is to question it.
It happens all the freaking time.
“It really shouldn’t be radical to simply believe someone.
But it is.”
Maybe in some cases it has to do with people feeling uncomfortable around problems they don’t know how to fix, and so instead they try to make the problem “go away” in a different way. Maybe in some cases people never learned how to really listen to someone. Maybe in some cases people are just arrogant assholes who think they know best. In a lot of cases, I suspect that it has a great deal to do with privilege and entitlement.
But like I said, I don’t really know. I have all sorts of theories, but speculating would require a something closer to a dissertation than a blog post. What I do know is that I’m done buying into it.
I’m done not trusting people to know more about their lives and their selves and their struggles than I do. And I’m done putting up with people who try to do this to me.
Instead of asking “Are you sure?” we need to start saying, “That sounds awful.” Instead of saying, “That doesn’t sound right,” we need to start saying, “I’m sorry that happened.” Instead of saying, “That doesn’t sound so bad,” we need to start saying, “I’m here for whatever you need.” Instead of causing each other to doubt ourselves we need to start supporting each other.
And we wonder why our society is so screwed up.
It really shouldn’t be radical to simply believe someone. It shouldn’t be radical to trust them to know their own life. It should not be radical to validate someone else’s experience, to treat what they tell you about themselves and their life as real. It shouldn’t be radical, but it is, and I don’t fully understand why. What I do know is that life is too short to spend around people who can’t be that radical.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” – JK Rowling
Because I’ve decided to start sharing quotes on occasion. And Harry Potter is never a bad place to start anything.
The story is set in New York in 1899 when two mythological creatures accidentally find themselves newly arrived in Manhattan. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, created and brought to life by an unscrupulous old magician practicing his own twisted version of Jewish metaphysics. She was commissioned to be a wife of an immigrant to the new world, but when her husband and master dies crossing the Atlantic, Chava finds herself alone in New York City, newly awakened and knowing nothing about the world except for the fact that since her master’s death she can hear other people’s thoughts.
Ahmad, on the other hand, is a jinni who was imprisoned in a jug centuries ago, and has no memory of how it happened. After being accidentally released by a metal smith in Little Syria, Ahmad is furious to discover that he’s now trapped in human form thousands of miles from his desert home.
This book is brilliant in so many ways. The premise is great, and the layers of detail that Wecker adds to nineteenth century New York are phenomenal. She manages to capture the character of two very different neighborhoods, to bring to life two completely separate communities, and populate them both with engaging and believable characters. While she has plenty of practical and well-researched detail, it is the characters that really make Wecker’s 1899 New York. We feel as though we belong in both of these neighborhoods, because we know their people, and through the neighborhoods’ people, their souls.
And the characters who stand out the most are Chava and Ahmad. Both characters are deep and detailed, but they are also not quite human. Chava, created to serve others, is an independent creature but has a particular type of selflessness that comes from not placing much importance on your own innate self. Ahmad, on the other hand, simply cannot feel beholden to other people; he’s meant to be solitary and the attachments human form with one another, and the implied permanence of those relationships frustrate him to no end, no matter how much he tries to understand them. The two are human-like, sure, but Wecker has managed to make them people without making them humans in supernatural bodies. They are a golem and a jinni, right down to their personalities.
And perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is that the golem and the jinni are not overly interested in trying to be human. They make every effort to pass as human, but they are less concerned with how to be human than they are with how to be themselves without revealing what they are. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that sets the book apart from most other supernatural tales and adds an extra layer of power.
Everything about this book is great, from the characters to the pacing to the way that folklore and magic is fully integrated into the world. And I’m going to be raving about it for a long time.
Last Sunday was the final episode of the first season of True Detective, and in some ways, the series finale as well. HBO will continue to air the show, but the new season will be in a new location and with different characters. Even though presumably the same people who brought us season 1 will also create season 2, the show itself will in all other ways be starting all over again, totally new. And so the story that was season 1 is effectively finished.
Somewhere around the fifth episode of the eight-episode season, there was a lot of discussion about women on the show, and whether or not the show was sexist or misogynist. A lot of ink was spilled by some very intelligent people, but I felt that all the speculation was a bit premature. After all, in a season that was clearly intended to be taken as a unit (not that they didn’t use the episode format for some brilliant things), how could you make an argument until the season was over? There are enough twists and turns in True Detective that the last five minutes could very well have changed our whole conception of the entire show. But now that the season is over, I do think the show raises some interesting questions about women in film.
Needless to say, there are major spoilers beyond this point.
For a certain perspective, the women in True Detective get a raw deal. For all my theories about needing to see the whole season, in some ways the beginning of episode 1 sums up the whole series in regards to women. In the scene that begins the 1995 sequence of events, we see the body of a woman who has been killed and displayed in ritualistic fashion as part of what is clearly someone’s sick fantasy, enacted. She has no identification, though she turns out to be a prostitute from a rural bayou town who was sexually abused by her father as a child.
“The show doesn’t give any of its female characters anything resembling the depth or detail of the male characters.”
Child sexual abuse is one of the most prominent themes of the season – and would probably require its own post to really explore – but even without knowing that detail in the scene, this first sequence with Dora Lang sets the stage for every female character who follows. For one thing, most obviously, she’s been victimized by a man. Beyond even being murdered, she’s also been reduced to an object, a prop, in a male fantasy. Even her own murder was not really about her, and the reaction the murder provokes is not about her, either. In both cases, it’s about the fantasy that she was unlucky enough to become a part of.
Women throughout the series are victimized by men – as Willa Paskin wrote for Slate “True Detective treats its female characters badly. That’s the point.” And we see that mistreatment again and again. From Marti’s long-suffering wife Maggie, to his angry teenaged daughter, to Marie Fontano (referred to more often than not as “the Fontano girl”), to the girl found after the shoot-out, all the way up to the seemingly mentally handicapped woman who lives with the serial killer Marti and Cole have been pursuing.
And, indeed, the show doesn’t shy away from these things. It does not excuse Marti cheating on his wife, and it certainly doesn’t excuse the murders committed by Errol Childress. It shows us patriarchal values, their rationalization, and the human toll they take. And though it’s too subtle of a show to outright condemn these behaviors, it’s easy enough to assume the show intends the audience to do so.
Like Dora Lang, the women in the show are victimized by men, in all sorts of ways, and like Dora Lang, the heart of every instance of mistreatment, be it mild or severe, is the simple fact that men in the world of the show feel they can behave however they like without caring about the women they harm and exploit. In fact, some of the most outrageous offenses against women in the show – Errol Childress decades-long murder spree – are actively covered up by respectable, powerful men who are able to keep everything under wraps because the victims are society’s most vulnerable – impoverished women and children. And the way in which the show presents all of this, from cheating husbands to child molesters, it’s easy to see an implicit condemnation of the underlying, entitled callousness.
And yet in other ways the show itself never really grows past that opening scene with Dora Lang. The women in the show certainly have complex reactions to their circumstances and their victimization, but the show doesn’t give them space to showcase them or to discuss them.
“I refuse to believe that the writer who crafted Rust Cohle’s entrancing monologues about time couldn’t have given Maggie’s station-house interview more substance.”
Arguably the woman who is given the most space to develop complex reactions in the show is Maggie, Marti’s wife. Yet we never see Maggie really give Marti a piece of her mind. We see her try to talk, and her frustration when she gets nowhere. In one of the later episodes we see her lash out by sleeping with Rust, a bold move that she still conveys to her husband in as few words possible. The closest she probably ever gets to a monologue is the letter she leaves for Marti in 1995 after taking the girls to her parents’ after learning of Marti’s affair, but the letter is never read for the readers. And so it is not just Marti silencing her – it is also the show itself.
One of the most intriguing moments of the whole season is when, in episode one, the 2012 interviews are no longer presented to the audience through the detectives’ camera. Instead of seeing the recording, we see the recording process, and the story itself steps out from our expectations – it stops following a “true crime” trope, and becomes True Detectives. And Marti and Cole, already interesting characters, become more and more three dimensional from there. Yet the women in the show are never allowed to do so, to step out from the television screen of male projection.
The show is an amazing show, and it doesn’t portray women badly necessarily – it just doesn’t portray them enough. For most it gives no glimpse of what complex motivations they may have for acting the way they do. The show doesn’t give any of its female characters anything resembling the depth or detail of the male characters. And I refuse to believe it couldn’t have. I refuse to believe that the writer who crafted Rust Cohle’s entrancing monologues about time couldn’t have given Maggie’s station-house interview to have more substance. Or given her better lines when Marti comes to see her in 2012, or when she tells him she cheated in 2002. Couldn’t have done more with the girl Rust and Cohle rescued from LaDou’s cookhouse or the young women with whom Marti has affairs. Or Marti’s daughter, or his mother-in-law. Or done anything at all with Rust’s long-time girlfriend who receives exactly one line. Because the acting in all of these instances is phenomenal, but can only take the character so far.
The story says important things and shows important things about women, and I’m not going to so far as to call it sexist. But it is still problematic. Because as many fascinating points as it makes about women who are victimized by men, Dora Lang still never stops being a body in a field. It’s awful, the show tells us, that this woman isn’t even the focus of her on murder, that she’s become a prop in someone else’s fantasy. Yet the show never makes Dora Lang’s murder about Dora Lang, either. Within a few episodes, she’s stopped being a focus entirely. By the end, she’s irrelevant. Errol Childress is notable for the number of victims he killed, not the individual lives he ended.
And the ultimate problem isn’t that the show starts off with a face-less, voice-less, unidentified, victimized woman who’s been reduced to an object. That moment is arguably making an important and powerful statement. The problem is that the show itself keeps the female characters in this same position throughout the whole first season.
In other words, it’s the biggest example of a flat circle you could find.
My mother surprised me this year on Valentine’s Day with a present: a book, entitled Don’t Worry It Gets Worse. I’m not sure what statement she was trying to make, but it might have something to do with the fact that I’m still someone who can only expect Valentine’s Day presents from her mother. (I love you Mom!)
The book itself, written by witty millennial Alida Nugent, was more or less just what I needed, though. I laughed most of the way through. Not in the “literally laughing out loud” way but in the sense of that I still found almost everything to be grin-worthy. Nugent unpacks her life in her early twenties with a lot of self-awareness and a big sense of humor.
She was also someone I found eerily relatable.
I mean, she graduated with a liberal arts degree she had no idea how to use, felt much more suited for school than actual life, spent time working as a freelance writer, and lived at home for a significant amount of time after graduation. No similarities there, right?
But the real thing that makes Nugent’s story so relatable is the fact that she owns up to those thought we all try to keep hidden. She has no problem admitting that she is “the sort of person who got stressed out playing Monopoly” and so might not be cut out for real life, or that she often wonders if it might have been better if her parents had crushed a few more of her dreams as a child, or that she routinely finds “gunk” at the bottom of her vegetable drawer.
Her ability to say thing I instantly recognize, even about experiences I’ve never had, is genius. I highly recommend her to my fellow millennials – along with her blog, The Frenemy, which in true Nugent fashion I will freely admit to not having read yet because who has time for that? Frankly, I’m a little amazed that any of you read my blog, and can only assume it is because you know me and so have an actual reason to care about my life and/or you are extremely bored. (On the other hand, if you are someone who thinks this is the coolest blog ever, you’re in luck! I fully intend to update it more regularly.)
At only 190 pages, Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse is short but sweet and will keep you laughing all the way through.
The first time I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel I was blown away. It was like nothing I had ever read. So when I heard she had a new book out, this time about her mother, I rushed to buy it right away…and then added it to the stack of books I was desperate to read. The stack has gotten large enough that if it were a real stack it would be in danger of falling over and killing my pets.
Reading Are You My Mother? though, it was apparent right away that it was very different than Fun Home. And as much as I wanted to enjoy it, I didn’t. There really isn’t another way to put it.
The book lacks the focus that Bechdel’s first graphic memoir had, the level of reflection and insight that made it shine. Whereas in Fun Home, Bechdel’s eye for patterns, her ability to link seemingly disjointed things, made the book a tour de force, in Are You My Mother? it gives the book an almost scattered feeling. The focus is too broad, and though it always returns to Bechdel’s mother, it does not feel as though everything is working in service of that subject matter. It feels as though Bechdel’s mother is simply there.
It’s understandable, though, and not particularly surprising really, that this book isn’t as confessional and revealing as Fun Home. As Bechdel herself points out, her mother is still alive. She still has a relationship with her that she would most likely like to maintain or improve. Publishing something like Fun Home would probably not advance that goal at all. In fact, the book reveals, publishing Fun Home did not advance that goal.
Bechdel is a brilliant graphic writer, and parts of this memoir were wonderful. But the over emphasis on psychoanalysis, the arcs that felt more like tangents than new depths, the way it never quite all tied together, it all left me feeling disappointed.
I wanted to read Fun Home I realized, to experience it again for the first time. But that’s not possible, and fortunately, a book like Fun Home always offers up something new every time you read it anyway.