On Hating Writing

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This is what I’ve been doing instead of writing.

I have a confession to make.

I hate writing.

I am a writer, and I teach writing, but writing is nonetheless a consistent source of anxiety in my life.

Even right now – I got up early this morning, pumped my baby full of milk, and rode my bike into town to have a “writing date” with myself. Now I’m sitting in front of a coffee shop with a steaming mug in the hazy Oregon sunlight, typing, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic, trying not to accidentally stare at the old man with a knee brace who’s sitting across from me, reading the sports section of the newspaper.

(Tangent: I can’t remember the last time I saw someone reading an honest-to-goodness newspaper, with actual paper and ink and everything. There is something comforting about that. This guy doesn’t seem to have an electronic device on him.)

Anyway, last night this sounded like an ideal way to spend a morning. As I planned the “writing date” in my head, I promised myself that I could write about whatever I want, without giving a thought to pleasing anyone but myself.

But now that I’m sitting here, writing, I can’t ignore the hum of anxiety in my limbs and fingers, or the thought-gnats in my brain that I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to trap and squash: will this be good writing? Will I post this on my blog? Shouldn’t I be writing something important, like for The Atlantic or some other publication? Shouldn’t I be writing something that matters?

And that’s what I hate about writing. Because things quickly spiral away from “writing” altogether, towards the fickle sirens of success, notoriety – and, yes, even money.

For the past month, I have been avoiding writing altogether (except for some compulsory work-related stuff), because any thought of writing instantly filled me with anxiety. This whole morning is my attempt to wade right into the angst and call its bluff. But it’s still here, simmering.

I’ve been running from writing not because I don’t want to write, but because writing has become inextricably bound up with my unfortunate ambition to be a “successful writer” – a phrase I will put in quotes because it’s a moving target, a meaningless category that constantly shifts to refer to whatever I am not.

At one point, being a “successful writer” simply meant being published. Until I got published. Then it became about publishing a book. Until I got a book contract for my PhD dissertation, and now it’s become about publishing a book with a general readership that might even make a little money. Ideally a novel, because for some reason that’s the holy grail du jour. In my mind, I’m a hack until I publish a novel. But, BUT, I know myself well enough to realize that if I ever do publish that novel or memoir or whatever that I will feel ecstatic for a hot minute – and then I will begin to stress about the next book and whether or not Oprah will include it in her club.

Ambition is fine, ambition can be good, but my writerly ambition is a voracious, insatiable blob monster, and most days I feel like I’m chained to it in an uncomfortable metal bikini.

The other day, Michael was patiently listening to me kvetch about all this for the gazillioneth time, and he said something – the only thing – that briefly made all this anxiety dissipate. We were standing together in the kitchen, in the midst of a long hug, listening to the munchkin pound away on his high chair. I was saying some muffled words into Michael’s chest, something like, “I hate feeling like I need to be a successful writer. I just want to have a bunch of babies and be a nobody.”

“Then be a nobody,” he said. “For now, at this point in your life, just enjoy being a mom, and write that novel when you’re 50. You don’t have to do everything now.”

When he said this, I felt my body relax, and I let those words hang in the air for a moment. You don’t have to do everything now.

That’s a neurosis of mine. I’m impatient, and so is my ambition monster. I’m not good at taking the marathon approach to life. Whether it’s running or my academic career or my writing, I’m terrible at pacing myself. I take on too much, I burn myself out, and then repeat the cycle.

Why is it so hard for me to live a small, unimportant, anonymous life?

The truth is, right now, I don’t want to be the angsty almost thirty year-old clicking away outside the coffee shop, worrying about “making it” as a writer and thus sabotaging my own happiness.

I want to be the nameless old guy reading the paper and drinking his coffee in the morning sun, completely unaware that I’m even here.

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The Link Between Gender Roles and Victim-Blaming

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By Flickr user: Sebastian Bergmann Siegburg, Germany http://sebastian-bergmann.de

Lately, as you know, I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about sexual violence against men and boys. I came across a disturbing case of sexual assault from Norwood, Colorado — a case with unsettling echoes of Steubenville  — and this motivated me to begin researching the phenomenon of victim-blaming. Why are so many rape victims, male and female, blamed for what happens to them? I read probably about a dozen studies (thank you, university library system!) and wrote a piece for The Atlantic about my interesting, and somewhat surprising, findings.

Before I jump into that article, on a completely unrelated matter, I’ve decided to go offline for a couple of weeks starting tomorrow (except for Netflix watch instantly — I’m not a total Spartan). You know that feeling you get when you’ve been sitting in a hot tub for too long, and you no longer feel relaxed and toasty, but more like you’re being slowly cooked alive? Well, that’s what the internet does to me every once in awhile, and I need to go dive into the cold pool of offline reality for a bit to recharge.

So, happy reading — and I’ll see you on the other side…!

Last year, a small American town began to cannibalize its own after a group of high school student athletes sexually assaulted an incapacitated classmate. In the aftermath, rather than rallying around the young victim, townspeople rushed to downplay the attack and defend the perpetrators instead.

If this sounds familiar, you might think I’m talking about Steubenville, Ohio — but I’m actually talking about Norwood, Colorado.

In February 2012, three high school wrestlers from the tiny town of Norwood ambushed a 13-year-old boy on a school bus, restrained him with duct tape, and anally raped him with a pencil. The victim’s father, who was also the high school principal, notified the superintendent and school board immediately, but aside from a one-day suspension, there were no repercussions for the perpetrators (two of whom were sons of the head wrestling coach, who also happened to be president of the school board). Despite Colorado’s mandatory reporting laws, the police were not notified until the principal reported the incident himself after a month of inaction on the part of town and school officials.

In the wake of the boys’ arrests on charges ranging from kidnapping to sexual assault, the seventh-grade victim was blamed and bullied by his peers at school and on social media. Rather than cracking down on this harassment, some parents encouraged it, including the mother of an accused boy who made and distributed t-shirts that proclaimed alliance with the teenaged attackers.

Many Norwood citizens ostracized the victim and called for his father’s resignation, incensed that the principal had reported what, to them, was a benign schoolboy prank. The assailants, all charged as juveniles, pled guilty to misdemeanors and received varying sentences of probation, community service, and cash restitution. The victim and his family were arguably punished more severely. After months of harassment, they were ultimately driven out of Norwood altogether and relocated to another community.

Read the rest of this article over at The Atlantic…

I Failed French Parenting 101

"Not quite."

“Not quite.”

“So, is he sleeping through the night yet?”

Hands down, that is the question I am asked most whenever I go anywhere with my six month old. Everyone from work colleagues to nosy Target cashiers loves to pry open this particular parental wound that has become the go-to topic for baby small talk.

In response, I give a smile that probably looks more like a wince and say, “No, not yet. Not quite.”

In my case, “not quite” involves breastfeeding every two to three hours around the clock. “Not quite” means that, last night, my baby ate at 7:00 PM when I put him to bed, then again at 10:00 PM, 12:00 AM, 2:30 AM, 5:00 AM, followed by a nice little wake-up nurse at 6:30.

Last summer, when I was about six months pregnant with Julian and had finally stopped throwing up thrice daily, I listened to an audio version of a book on French parenting, Bringing Up Bebe. Pamela Druckerman, the author, is an American expat living in Paris who notices that all the French children around her are bizarrely well-behaved with patient temperaments and sophisticated palettes – in contrast to her own untamed American menaces who seem ripe for Supernanny intervention.

The most miraculous feature of these Parisian cherubs is their ability to sleep through the night at only a few weeks old. Druckerman attributes this to an engrained French parenting technique she calls “the pause.”

Whereas the neurotic American mother rushes right over to the crib at the tiniest sound, the French mother – who I imagine reclining on a chaise reading Madame Bovary with a glass of Beaujolais in hand – simply tilts her head at the sound, pausing to assess whether the baby needs to eat or not. If not, he learns to soothe himself back to sleep.

Très simple, non?

That’s “the pause.” That’s the wizardry that French mothers use to get their babies to sleep through the night when they’re just wee little baguettes, fresh out of the womb.

“No problem,” mused my pregnant self. “That’s just common sense.” Armed with this gnosis, I was lulled into a smirking confidence.  Surely, I thought, with my maternal intuition, my sensitivity, my cross-cultural parenting savvy, I wouldn’t be one of those harried mothers shambling into the baby’s room multiple times a night, like an extra from The Walking Dead. I would simply pause, my baby would lull himself back into sleep, and then I would go back to my high-brow reading and red wine drinking before getting a good night’s sleep.

HA HAAHA HA HAAAA. Ha. No. That has never happened.

[….]

Read the rest of my guest post over at my friend Beth Woolsey’s parenting blog “Five Kids is A Lot of Kids.” While you’re there, be sure to check out some of her hilarious writing.

What About the Boys?

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boys.

In Quaker-speak, we have something called a “concern,” which is basically a deep-felt divine prompting to attend to a particular need. Although I’ve long felt a general sense of “concern” about injustices related to gender and sexuality, when I wrote that article about Don Draper being raped, I thought it would be a small foray for me into the issue of sexual violence against males. My main goal was to raise awareness and perhaps motivate others to speak out on their behalf.

But I can’t seem to look away. This issue of boys being sexually assaulted and shamed into silence is increasingly feeling like a “concern.” Writing that article opened a Pandora’s box for me, a box full of horrifying statistics and heartbreaking accounts of abuse. Most of the people who responded to me personally after the article came out were male survivors. Many of expressed variations of the same thing: no one is really talking about this. No one sees this. No one cares.

One survivor sent me a link to this Oprah episode from 2010, available online, which focuses on the stories of men who were abused as children. The entire audience in this episode consists of male survivors, one of whom was the man who sent me the link — 200 men in all, each holding a picture of their childhood selves, the faces of beautiful little boys whose lives were horrifically changed. Or, as one survivor puts it, whose souls were stolen as children.

I dare you to watch the episode and not weep. I was crying within the first few minutes, just seeing all those men gathered, holding the pictures, publically telling the world what they’ve lived through.

The episode tells several of these men’s stories in graphic detail – of course there isn’t time to tell every story, but just seeing their faces is incredibly moving. Even a glimpse, the camera passing by, reveals a shadow of the pain they have endured and are enduring. I’d been immersing myself in stats and data, but now I was able to see those numbers come alive in the faces and bodies and stories of actual people.

Oprah mentions her own shock at encountering the disturbing statistic that 1 in 6 men were sexually abused as children. I’m well familiar with the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 4 women have experienced rape or attempted rape, but until I started looking in this topic, I had never come across the 1 in 6 figure about boys who are sexually abused.  If you’re having trouble believing the number, you can read more about the supporting studies here – there’s a good chance it’s an underestimate, actually, because research indicates that men are less likely to disclose experiences of sexual abuse than women.

And that’s what is haunting me right now. The silence.

Some of these men were abused for years, throughout their entire childhood, and their parents had no idea. Some, even, were abused by one parent right under the nose of the other parent, which is even more sickening.

It’s hard not to be consumed by fear once you have a child; the menu of nightmarish things that could happen is a long one – but right near the top of that list of horrors is having my son be sexually abused and then shamed into silence. I know that I can’t be physically with my son at every moment during his entire childhood and adolescence, but what can I do to teach him to speak out if he is harmed, and to never ever ever blame himself if someone assaults him?

My mom recently told me a story about my brother – this doesn’t involve any sort of sexual abuse, just to be clear, but it does connect to this discussion in a way. My brother, who was maybe ten or so, was walking home alone from an oboe lesson past a house just down the block with a psychedelic van parked in front. The funky, colorful van intrigued my brother, so he paused to look at it for a moment before continuing down the street toward home – when a guy pulled up and started yelling at him for messing with his van. This guy was scary. He shouted a slew of expletives and explicit death threats at my brother, who, remember, was just a little kid.

After my brother got home and told my mom what happened, she decided to take him to the police station to file a report (my brother specifically remembers the thrill of being able to say the ACTUAL f-bomb five times for the police officer, with mom’s approval). The cops talked to the guy, who never bothered my brother again and actually apologized to him. This is the part of the story I find interesting: my mom said that she chose to take my brother to the cops mainly because she thought it was an opportunity to teach him the importance of speaking out in the face of any abuse, whether verbal or otherwise.

I realize this event is not in the same realm as sexual abuse, not even close, and I’m not intending to lump them together. But, for me, the story does shed a little light on this question about empowering children to talk about any violence they experience, preferably with a trusted authority figure. And it also highlights the importance of listening to children when they do speak up. That part is crucial, as research shows that children are often viewed as unreliable witnesses and disbelieved when they report abuse. I’m proud of my mom for taking my brother seriously and intentionally using that moment to empower him (and letting him justifiably say the f-word repeatedly).

Many feminists have written, particularly in the wake of Steubenville, of the need to teach boys the importance of consent. I agree – but I think we must begin by teaching them the importance of their own consent, and the sacredness of their own bodies, and to empower them to speak out if anyone, anyone, ever violates that.

There are many powerful voices out there advocating for women and girls who have experienced sexual violence – and I applaud them. I am so grateful for them. But who is speaking out for the boys? Not as many, it seems, but perhaps the tide is turning.

The eerie hush surrounding this societal wound is gradually being broken, I think. I hope. In my own research, I’ve seen a sudden spike in studies on sexual violence against men and boys since about 2006 onward. Several of those studies were conducted by this team of psychologists, who repeatedly remark on the dearth of research on this issue. And, of course, the Oprah episode is another indication that more men are coming forward, and more people are listening.

But we have a long way to go.

The gender myths that contribute specifically to the silence of male victims remain largely intact: namely, that men are the strong, invulnerable, stoic ones, the ones who can’t be hurt – or, if they are hurt, they must somehow be complicit in their own abuse.

We contribute to the shaming and silencing of male victims by perpetuating harmful attitudes about the invincibility of boys and men. Boys don’t cry. Boys will be boys. Man up. The lie that men can never appear weak without compromising their masculinity is insidious, dehumanizing, and needs to be challenged.

And it is being challenged, in an important way, by men telling their stories. I am moved by these survivors who directly confront myths about what it means to be a “Real Man,” simply by being real men, human beings with inborn capacities for both strength and vulnerability. They show the courage it takes to speak out, especially in such a public way. There was no weakness in that crowd of faces; there was strength and honesty, and daring openness – bravery of the highest kind.

But their voices shouldn’t be the only ones calling for more awareness, more research, and more resources for male victims. I am not an abuse survivor, or a man, but my life happens to be overrun with tiny males. I have a son and four nephews – their bodies and souls are beyond precious to me. Now that know these stories, these statistics, I can’t ignore this problem.

Maybe if I write, others will, too. Maybe we can expand our societal conversation about sexual violence to have a dual focus on both sexes. Men and women, boys and girls – none of us live in complete isolation from one another. Our lives are entangled. Our fates are intertwined. Our pain pools together.

Let’s empower our children, especially our boys, to speak out. And let’s listen when they do.

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Tiny beloved males.

Don Draper Was Raped.

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I’m over at The Atlantic today, writing about the invisibility of female-on-male rape.

In an episode of Mad Men last month, a prostitute named Aimee has sex with a teenaged Don Draper (née Dick Whitman) after nursing him through a nasty chest cold. Actually, let me rephrase: Aimee doesn’t just have sex with young Dick Whitman–she rapes him.

Throughout most of the episode, Aimee serves as a surrogate mother for Dick; she lets him recuperate in her bed and offers him rest, comforting words, spoonfuls of warm broth. However, in their penultimate scene together, Aimee’s maternal kindness turns oddly predatory. She approaches her bed where Dick is lying weakly, fever newly broken, and asks, “Don’t you want to know what all the fuss is about? “No,” Dick replies forcefully, averting his eyes and hugging the blankets tightly against his chest as she reaches under the covers to touch him. “Stop it,” he says, clearly uncomfortable, even afraid. But Aimee doesn’t stop.

To me, this interaction was an unambiguous depiction of rape–and not simply statutory rape. Dick is in a physically weakened state and repeatedly makes it clear that he does not want Aimee to touch him sexually, much less “take his cherry.” As a child of the ’80s, I was raised on a healthy diet of “No Means No.” Rape isn’t just something that happens at gunpoint with a strange man in a dark alley; rape, essentially speaking, is being subjected to sex without consent. And Dick clearly did not consent.

Click here to read the rest of the article at The Atlantic….