the feminine mystique and the men left behind

what happened to the boys?I’ve been reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a book that is credited with launching the Second Wave of the feminist movement, and I must confess I’m having difficulty really identifying with many of her claims. It might not be surprising, given we are of different generations, but on the other hand, a lot of the starting points and issues she draws attention to are still relevant today. She just takes them in a completely different direction than I would go. But I think that will be the subject of another post.

However, there is one point Friedan touched on and I wish she had developed it more: and that is the role of the men. The edition I have is an updated one with a couple of added introductions. The chapter I found most intriguing was one of these introductions, where she reflects back, two generations later and assesses the change. What I love about this chapter is that she doesn’t just focus on what changes have occurred for women, but also the impact on society as a whole. And as Friedan observes, the truth is, changing a woman’s world means changing the world of men too and a lot of the feminist movement does not really address that. Meanwhile, books that take on the masculine mystique and focus on the “men’s movement” have largely been copies in reverse of women’s lib and are thus inauthentic. Or they are an outmoded brand of machismo that reflects only an obsolete form of masculinity.

I believe the problem is that such a paradigm shift does alter the identity of men, but somehow they’ve never really had a larger cultural conversation about where to go and how to change in positive ways along with women. What the women’s movement has focused on is the reactionary man who bemoans the loss of job and income and retaliates through sexual harassment and violence. What it neglects to consider is the larger proportion of men who do have a desire to be positive contributors to society, but who have along the way lost a clear role model and are left to fend for themselves in navigating personal ethics.

My husband and I have been watching a lot of Mad Men lately and it occurs to me that Don Draper is a portrait of the all-American male: the man every other man wished he was. He has a lot of charm, smooth power, wealth, looks. He’s got a beautiful wife and family, home and car. When it comes to office politics, he exercises a lot of power and control, but he does it with finesse. He keeps underlings in their place, but he also does not resort to cheap jokes at the expense of others. He remains quiet – or occasionally puts others in check – when they smear another man’s honor.

But for the modern man, the old paradigm doesn’t quite work anymore for today’s society. Man’s relationship to women has to change as he shares earning power and household politics with her, as he shares more household duties and the gender lines become blurred. Blurring these lines necessarily call masculinity into question, asking society to redefine what being male truly means. Fathers have also become problematic role models because through problems caused by divorce or changing societal values in a whole slew of issues, men often face disillusionment with their fathers. Many have difficult relationships with their fathers in which they either become so disillusioned they draw away from them or they have to suffer through a period in which they try to renegotiate a new relationship with their fathers. A relationship in which they reconcile themselves to the notion that their father may not be the hero they once thought their father should be, but at least they can accept him for who he is.

Among friends, role models become even harder to find. Susan Walsh has an excellent blog on today’s hookup culture, and what I draw from it is that there is often an identity schism for male friends as well. In the past, men would have looked up to and admired the alpha males, the Don Drapers of society. But today’s alpha male often comes across as…well, kind of a dick. The beta males might wish they had some of the things alpha males have…but they don’t really want to actually be who the alpha male is. They have to compete with them, but they don’t admire them anymore. Likewise, women might fall head over heels for the Don Draper type in the past. But today many women feel they have to choose. They choose the alpha male to have sex with, but when it comes to marriage, they want the beta males – because the alphas are all just misogynist a-holes. (Actually, increasingly women seem to be more attracted to men with more feminine features!) Women sometimes do fall in love with the alpha males, but they often want to change them, redeem them, tame them – thus turning them into more of a beta male. In which case, they don’t love the alpha male at all. Rather they love just an idea of him. And the guys who are really great guys often end up feeling like they finish last.

Without clear role models, the result is many men are left suffering an identity crisis – one that seems to last longer and longer. And we have movies like Up In The Air and Greenberg about men well into their 40′s, still struggling to figure out what they want from life and who they want to be.

The thing is, many men do want to be good fathers, good husbands, and positive contributors to their work place and community. They do want wives they can talk to and respect. Ethics are important to them, but they have discovered they must figure out for themselves what those ethics are. Measures of success are personal – not compared to the Jones’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, as long as it authentic and they can respect themselves as individuals, it is a good thing. But it is problematic when 62% of men say they miss the day when a person’s word and a handshake meant something. It is a problem when men report feeling lost, confused, left behind. It is a problem when men begin to fall behind women in school, dropping out at higher rates and performing poorly in classes.

Women’s liberation does not work if it comes at the expense of their husbands, friends, and sons. We haven’t changed societal mores if we repress or scoff at honest fears and concerns, when men feel they are muzzled by political correctness. We shouldn’t accept misogyny, but that doesn’t give us license to repress men either: that merely reverses the roles, but keeps us locked in obsolete rituals of power. What I love from Friedan’s chapter is that, even though she did not delve into the intricacies of the role of man today, she did end with a beautiful summation of what we should be trying to achieve: “Grown-up men and women….become more and more authentically themselves. And they do not pretend that men are from Mars or women are from Venus. They even share each other’s interests, talk a common shorthand of work, love, play, kids, politics. We may now begin to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are, and define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy, triumph, power, and the common good, together.”

In short: equal, but in a way that simultaneously celebrates individuality, personality, and working together for the common good. What she doesn’t say, but what I think underlines her words is the necessity for mutual respect and open curiosity to engage each other.

women unbound – alias grace

This book did me a solid.As I’ve done in my previous Women Unbound entries, with this book I’m not going to give a traditional book review. I’m going to highlight some themes that emerged from the book for me and pose some questions that hopefully will engender some discussion. I find it helpful to not just read these books but to also spend some time reflecting on how they change our perspectives and maybe even make us think about the world in a different way. And I think a discussion with a multitude of voices is the best way to learn even more from a book.

This book did take me a little while to get into. It starts off in a little bit of a nontraditional way, so it took me a little while to get my bearings. But I’m so glad I stuck with it. By about a third of the way in, I realized I was hooked.

The book is based on a true story that happened in Canada around the 1850s, about a woman who, at the age of sixteen was tried and committed as an accomplice to a double murder. But a lot of mystery surrounds the role she actually played in the murders because some of the facts don’t quite add up. There are competing versions of the story and Grace herself has no memory of the event. She has a confession, but it comes out quite quickly that her lawyer coerced her into giving the version of the story he liked best. Meanwhile Grace is prone to mental fits that no one understands so countless doctors and clergymen examine her and come to competing conclusions: some convinced she is guilty, others convinced she is innocent.

Then, Dr. Simon Jordan tries his hand at unraveling the mystery. He has new ideas about psychology that are ahead of the vogue. And he approaches her like a box to unlock, if only he could find the key. She begins to tell him about herself…but the more he learns, the more he wonders whether what she tells him is truth or whether he has been taken in.

If nothing else, Margaret Atwood does an astounding job at getting in the heads of her characters and showing us how people of the time really thought about human psychology, how much they didn’t understand…and perhaps, how much we still have yet to figure out.

Without spoiling the end, I think two important themes emerged from the book for me. The first is the notion of guilt or innocence and redemption when you’re dealing with someone who has no recollection of committing a crime. In our society we do grant some leniency for pleas of insanity, and commit them to institutions rather than prison – an answer which probably makes most sense considering the potential threat to society the person might pose even if not truly guilty or responsible for actions that can’t be controlled. But how many of us actually stop to think this through? I hadn’t – not really – before now. Can someone who has no memory of a crime they are accused of committing truly feel guilt? If they can’t feel guilt, can they really be redeemed? Are they really responsible, if they have no control? In that sense, if someone has certain mental disorders, does that mean that not only do they lose their freedoms when committed to a mental institution, they also have lost a right to forgiveness or redemption? Maybe it’s not society necessarily that takes away that right, but the person’s own mind. In which case, we think it is leniency, but in essence, they have more to lose than even prisoners do.

The second theme that emerged was the repeated attempts by others to categorize Grace, to put her in a box and make her fit. Whenever she didn’t quite fit, they ignored or fudged or discredited the evidence that didn’t support their beliefs. Was she the beleaguered and misunderstood innocent? Or was she the crazy psychopath? Was she timid and shy, or an powerful threat? It made me think: how much do we do this to others? How much do we do this to ourselves? We have a characterization of what and who people should be and try to stuff everyone into that box. The Professional. The Supermom. The Bleeding-Heart Liberal and the Right-Wing Nut. There are too many to count. But let’s take The Professional, for example. We have all kinds of things we believe about professionalism: things that a true professional would never do, say, or wear. But this vision of professionalism is creeping to include larger and larger aspects of life. Not only does it govern how you behave and appear at work, it now begins to govern how you’re allowed to think, what you’re allowed to say, and what you’re allowed to do outside of work. At home. With your family. With your friends. Online. Even when it has no bearing on how you actually perform your job at work.

This frustrates me to no end because I believe there should be a clearer distinction between your professional and personal life and that your boss has no right to dictate who you are on your own time. But beyond the personal freedom issue, I take umbrage at the notion that a true professional only says and does certain things – and that they cannot complain about problems that arise in the daily functioning of their job. Because what this creates is a wall of silence. Silence that perpetuates problems, prevents cooperation, and prevents people from really knowing each other as it quashes individuality. It’s the kind of silence that allows horrors to continue – because people are too afraid of how they’ll be seen if they cry out about an abuse or about their pain.

Likewise with the other boxes. Try to stuff people inside and ignore what doesn’t fit. It prevents truly understanding others and it inhibits effective problem-solving.

Do you feel you suffer from being stuffed into a box? Do you ever find yourself silenced?

unchain my heart!

women unbound – half the sky

At least Mao said something worth hearing.“‘If you cry out, we will kill you,’ one of the told Dina. So she kept quiet as, one by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her.

When Dina didn’t come home, her father and friends bravely went out to the fields, and there they found her, half dead in the grass. They covered her and carried her back to her home. There was a health center in Kindu, but Dina’s family couldn’t afford to take her there to be treated, so she was cared for only at home. She lay paralyzed in her bed, unable to walk. The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum, causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs. These injuries, rectovaginal and vesicovaginal fistulas, are common in Congo because of sexual violence….[where] everyone knows that rape is routine…it is the troops’ right to rape women.”

This is but one part of one of the stories that come from this book. It will open your eyes, change your mind, and inspire you. Of course most of us here in the West agree violence against women is wrong, even though rape is prevalent in our own society. But this book not only chronicles the stories of extraordinary women, it changes how we see these problems and what solutions are available and achievable. Most require less money in foreign aid, not more.

Here is just a snapshot of a handful of the things I have learned in reading this book:

- The “Girl Effect”: giving women equal rights and access to education can raise GNP and national savings rates as well as cure a whole wealth of social ills from poverty to malnutrition to terrorism. Yes, terrorism. Because security experts have noticed the countries that breed terrorism are also the ones which marginalize women.

- The modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was. (citing Foreign Affairs)

- Rescuing girls is the easy part. Combating poverty and shame is the hard part in keeping girls from seeing they have options other and deserve more than to go back to the brothels. Because it’s not about shame. It’s about basic human rights everyone is entitled to, no matter their past.

- Violence against women has mutated into new forms: hurling acid into the faces of women and girls, burning brides, and throwing chili powder and lit cigarettes into…well, you can imagine where.

- Over and over again, the saving grace? Education. Education in a multitude of ways and for a million different reasons. So women know what their rights are. So women and girls know they are not alone in their suffering. So they know it is possible to speak out and to demand better. So they have the tools they need to achieve better.

- What prevents them from getting an education or having better lives? More often than not, the answer does not lie in sending more money. The answer lies in looking at the individual community or situation and innovating better, more efficient solutions.

- Usually these solutions are stupidly, stupidly simple and cheap. Solutions like putting a girls’ toilet in schools and giving the girls maxi pads so they can privately change and keep clean instead of skipping school for being humiliated one week each moth. Solutions like iodized salt to eradicate health problems associated with iodine deficiency. Solutions like allowing women to work from their homes so they don’t have to face potential rape and violence on the streets of dangerous, war-torn cities.

I think what prevents most of us from acting is the feeling overwhelmed by such huge problems. That we don’t know where to begin and we feel we face forces much larger than ourselves. What this book shows is a different story: solutions aren’t easy, but they’re not so difficult as we might imagine. It’s not about making men the enemy. It’s not about making Islam the enemy. It’s about re-envisioning approaches and showing how easing the oppression off women not only save the life of the individual women, but it can save nations and eradicate problems that affect everyone.

Reading this book will transform you. It’s the only nonfiction book I’ve ever stayed up half the night reading, and I owe my mother-in-law a credit for drawing my attention to it.

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“Educate a girl and she will do the rest.”

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post expressing my deep sense of helplessness and futility when I look at the government and prominent leaders who are so completely out of touch with the reality of life their people face every day. And I expressed my sense that the real movement is the movement of people. Ordinary citizens started making statements with their words, their actions, and often their dollars, either through donations or financial endorsements. They are choosing to live a different way and reclaiming their right to do so. This was my sense in just looking at the world around me in communities supporting local or urban farming, women reaching out and reinvesting in midwives, mothers deciding to home school, neighbors donating their meager wages to Haiti relief, or people turning away from corporate greed and choosing instead to run their own businesses. My sense was people were taking a moment to look at their lives and ask: what is my legacy? What will I contribute to this world? And in multitudes of different ways, they were choosing a road of progress. This was my sense.

This weekend, I found proof. In New York City this weekend, the Women In the World Conference harnessed the power of women the likes of Sec. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Christiane Amanpour, Barbara Walters, Christine Lagarde…and oh God, so many more. CEOs and top managers of companies like Morgan Stanley and HP, and so many amazing and inspiring women activists from all around the world who have made enormous contributions ranging from sex strikes to protest civil war and the use of rape as a weapon of war (in countries where 92% of women had been raped or sexually abused), raiding brothels to rescue sex slaves, organizing women’s prisons as sanctuaries from prostitution and gendercide, educating and organizing African villages against the practice of female genital mutilation, and doing everything they can to provide women and communities with the resources they need to gain access to knowledge, information and power. These words have become so cliché to our ears, but when you hear their stories you feel how real this is. How millions of women are gang raped, mutilated, and oppressed every day, often multiple and multiple times a day.

But what came out of the conference is not a sense of powerlessness. These women were living proof that it is possible to reach out to the powerless and emancipate them. And not only could they do it, but we here in the U.S. can too. What came from this conference was the message over and over again that government-to-government solutions are not always the most effective way. Yes, government solutions, laws, and enforcement of those laws help. But often times it is the most simple of ideas and tiniest of investments that reap the biggest dividends.

The Girl Effect
Economists worldwide are finding more and more evidence everywhere they look that educating women has such far-reaching implications as to be the literal saving grace of a state. Indeed, educating women has been the linchpin, the key to East Asia’s most recent economic successes and development. It not only hugely increases the labor force, it also delays marriage and reduces childbearing. The women finance the education of younger relatives (and future generations) and save enough to boost national savings rates. Not only does it combat poverty and reduce instances that come along with poverty (like families selling their children into slavery – a $36 billion a year black market, second only to weapons and drugs), it helps reduce infant mortality, improves societal health and nutrition. And security experts now are suggesting that empowering girls disempowers terrorists. Educating women, helping them participate more, enables them to be a more powerful voice in their households and in their countries. For we find that the countries that nurture terrorism are disproportionately those that marginalize women. (Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn)

And the saddest part is that it is often the girls who dreamed, who dreamed they could have a job, bring money home to the family, who had goals in the name of love and marriage and family, who often have that dream betrayed. They are sold, beaten, drugged and pushed into a four-walled room with no doors. When asked what they wanted to do, if they could leave the brothels, if they could do anything else, what would they do…they respond, “Madam, how can we use these hands for something else?” (Kiran Bedi) For if they did leave, they would be so shamed and reviled by their families and communities. They carry such burdens of shame and guilt they DO NOT DESERVE, it often leads to suicide or return to the brothels.

So what are these simple solutions? For one, we can invest in these girls, in their rehabilitation and help them become entrepreneurial members of society. Many have dreams to open shops or salons or to turn a craft skill into a business. Micro-lending and other forms of support – $100 to us, the price of a couple of dinners out or a day shopping, except it gets paid back with interest – can literally be the difference between life and death for these women. Some women are talking about programs in countries life Afghanistan and Pakistan to help women work from home, sewing or doing whatever, but that allows them to support their families both by being home with the kids and bring home money and by keeping them safe from the deadly violence of the streets of Kabul. It also changes the power dynamic in the household, for once a woman starts contributing financially to the household she begins to gain the respect of the men in the home. Individuals and corporations can also make small investments in infrastructure like wells, bus routes, and bathrooms in schools that suddenly make education for girls possible where it was not possible before.

But above all the answer is education. Here the work of so many NGOs provides powerful relief and access to education (though we should be reminded that NGOs cannot be the substitute actors of government – they can help where governments fail, but we must still pressure government into action where we can). And volunteering for or donating to NGOs can be a powerful way to help. But education is critical because it gives women and girls knowledge and know-how for careers, yes. But it also allows them to even just know what their rights are and to learn how to speak up against practices like female genital mutilation and how and why to say no when there is talk of sending their children away to “work”, because sending children away often leads condemns them to abduction into slavery.

This is not just political. This IS personal. In a globalized world such as ours has become, we can no longer pretend that the problems of these women are not our problems. We can no longer pretend that our actions – both the ones we take and the ones we don’t – do not have massive repercussions in the lives of so many people who live on under $2 a day. When the CIA estimates 50,000 slaves are trafficked into the U.S. annually, we cannot pretend the problem is not here at our doorstep.

The question isn’t “Can we afford to help?” or “Do they deserve it?” The question is “In what ways can we innovate to engineer other simple solutions?” If you don’t think the victims of oppression living and dying every day deserve our attention, then at least realize we owe it to the victims and families of victims of 9/11 and troops fighting terrorists every day.

“I realized the price of being silent is higher than the price of doing something.”
– Leymah Gbowee, the woman who organized a sex strike to bring an end to civil war in Liberia, Women in the World Conference 2010

Here are a couple of powerful clips. Click here to see more memorable moments.

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women unbound – their eyes were watching god

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a seminal piece in African American literature. In this novel, Zora Neale Hurston chronicles the story of Janie, an African American women who is pushed by her family into a marriage she doesn’t want, escapes it, only to land in another marriage with a man who did not live up to the fairytale vision he portrayed during their courtship. Under his authoritarian nature, Janie begins to understand herself just a little bit better. When she is forced to reign herself in, she begins to understand precisely what it is she wishes to say. After his death, Janie begins to demand freedom. Though society tries to hem her in, she falls in love with Tea Cake: a risk, a gamble, but a man she well and truly loves, and who loves her in return. She has learned to push off the shackles others place on her, but in the end, finds the shackle that remains is one of her own making: her fears. Now that she has learned to love, she understands the fear of losing her beloved.

This is the theme that emerged for me in reading this book: all the ways in which we can become enslaved. We can become enslaved, yes, by the expectations of family or society or by the hand of a ruthless man. Or sometimes we can enslave ourselves, when we allow ourselves to become captives of our own fears. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by them, to become blinded by them, to not even see or know how we do this to ourselves. It can become so hard to emancipate ourselves, especially when we know those fears so well. When they become a cocoon to hide within. When they are justifiable. But no matter how much reason we have to be afraid, those fears prevent us from being free.

And often have the potential to lead us to unjustifiable actions.

It is amazing what humans are capable of doing when they are afraid.

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the history of childbirth and things you’d never believe are true

getmeoutDuring my drive to work today, I heard an amazing, fascinating interview on NPR (NPR always has the best stuff, I swear) with author Randi Hutter Epstein about her book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, in which she chronicles all the different tried methods and beliefs surrounding childbirth that have surfaced through the ages. Things like medieval doctors who put semen into womb-shaped vases and hoped to produce a baby. Or that a century ago it was believed that ‘civilized women’ should only have cesareans because they did not have enough “energy” to go through labor (this is why they should also not be educated because education drains our limited resources of energy towards the head and away from childbearing). Poor women on the other hand were “well-equipped” to make babies.  The interview itself is amazing, and you can listen to it here.

I bring special attention to the interview because two themes emerged (that I think would be of interest to Women Unbound readers or to anyone interested in issues surrounding childbirth, or indeed female solidarity). One theme was the importance of a social support system and methods that help put a woman’s mind at ease when she goes through childbirth. One caller reported her family had a history of traumatic childbirth experiences where her grandmother, for example, was forced to have her legs tied together until the doctor could arrive to prevent the child from being born before he got there. Her mother experienced a traumatic miscarriage involving a lot of blood loss. Meanwhile her own experience was quite the opposite. She went to Lamaze classes and found techniques that helped her breathe and remain calm…and so when she ended up delivering in the back of their minivan, she felt at peace and empowered. But he mother and grandmother insisted (because of their own history) that childbirth could not possibly be a positive experience. So it’s very often that women have very strong beliefs about how childbirth should go, and sometimes don’t always allow each other room to create their own experiences or allow for different ones to be legitimate.

A second theme that I found interesting is that, while we may not have a full handle on childbirth yet, a lot of advances have been made (part of the process where OB-GYNs emerged as specialists and created a push for midwives to become licensed) in areas running from having a birthing room where mother and baby could be together right after labor to finding out that DES, which was supposed to be beneficial, ended up to be linked to causing vaginal cancer in the baby. These findings were supported by science and the doctors who produced the findings were much lauded…but oftentimes the impetus to conduct the research came from an observation by the female patient. An enterprising and empowered woman would suggest that something might be better or maybe there was a link between a drug and outcome, and the doctor would go through records and literature and discover, hey, she was right!

This is such a sensitive topic, I am certain this book and interview will raise not a few eyebrows. I have yet to read the book myself, but I can definitely highly recommend listening to the interview.

women unbound – reading lolita in tehran

reading-lolitaReading Lolita in Tehran is a powerful account of a woman’s journey through the Iranian Revolution and the gripping challenges her young students had to face as the society underwent cataclysmic changes. Iran went from being a country that could rival many of its Western counterparts in the freedoms and liberties it offered its citizens – even the women – to one that became among the most repressive regimes ever seen in the modern world.  The different generations of women lived in different time zones, it seemed, with the older generations experiencing more freedom than the younger ones could.

Some of the earlier chapters are the most poignant…after a while the book did get a little repetitive and difficult for me to wade through (especially since I’ve become a pro at skimming – thank you, grad school). But I pushed myself to read it in its entirety. It is worth reading, to catch a glimpse behind the veil. To see what these women had to endure and how they found inner resources to help themselves survive imprisonment (on multiple levels), fear, violence, erasing of self and theft of their rights to do even the most basic things like express who they are and love whom they choose.

But the part I loved most about this book is that Nafisi, who is a university professor, collected a select group of her top female students and invited them to weekly meetings in her home – free from the oppression of prying eyes and suspcious ears – to read literature together. In these classes, the students read everything from The Great Gatsby to Pride and Prejudice to, of course, Lolita. And through the literature, these women were able to find themselves. They used important themes from the texts to discuss the world around them and to understand their place in it. The literature gave them a forum in which they could break down the barriers they had around them and begin to talk about their own lives; first, obliquely, and then more assertively and directly as they gained confidence and built mutual trust and respect. Indeed, the book itself is divided into four subsections, each one based on a different piece of literature. Each subsection draws from its literary namesake to highlight themes Nafisi faces in her own life as the Revolution begins, when the oppressive regime comes to power and she is forced out of job and under a veil, until the time when Nafisi plans to leave Iran and the students must make their own plans for survival.

It is for this reason I love this book. It highlights and illustrates so well why books are so important for us. We have our favorite books: ones that entertain us, that uplift us, that comfort us. If there is a lesson here, it is one we already agree with and and maybe already intuitively know. Or, perhaps it is something we can just appreciate, even if it differs from our own experience. But then, we have our books that touch the essence of who we are. They help us see our own world in a different way, and maybe help us understand who we are and what our situations are a little bit better. Reading them is like an epiphany. And sometimes it rocks you to your core.

I have one such book that has been important in my life: Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram almost isn’t even a favorite book, though it is a really entertaining read. But I’ve only read it once; it’s not one I go to for comfort or escape. But it speaks to my heart. And why should I be able to identify with it so much? It’s a book about an Australian convict who escapes and flees to India, gets involved with some humanitarian work, the local mafia, the movies and eventually the muhajadeen. It’s quite the adventure (and based on a real story) – but far from my life. But the main character is a powerful narrator, and under the adventure was pain, loneliness, emptiness and a swollen and bruised heart. And that I understood. I was in that place and his words made me understand the blackness, so that instead of staring at a gaping, dark hole, I could begin to see fragments and facets of life. Dimensions to hold on to, and through understanding, grasp and clutch my way towards finding forgiveness and redemption.

It has beautiful quotes like:
“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears.”
and
“The past reflects eternally between two mirrors -the bright mirror of words and deeds, and the dark one, full of things we didn’t do or say.”
and
“In this way justice is done…because justice is a judgment that is both fair and forgiving…justice is not only the way we punish those who do wrong. It is also the way we try to save them.”

Do you have a book like this? One that has changed you or been important to you in some way?

women unbound – queen bees and wannabes

queenbeesWhat? Two posts in one day? Two Women Unbound posts in one week? What’s going on here? Actually, this post is totally impromptu – I just finished reading a book I happened to come across a reference of, had to read it asap, and was SO ENTHRALLED by it the entire time reading it, I just had to post about it immediately.  And I would say any parent with a daughter over the age of about 7 MUST READ THIS BOOK.

Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman is a parent’s guide, but it is a perfect candidate for Women Unbound because it is all about empowerment: empowering young girls to navigate the murky, dramatic, and sometimes crippling waters of adolescent life and still learn how to treat herself and others with decency and respect.

I say this book is a must read because, quite honestly, and as the book makes clear, the world of adolescents today is a different beast than even in my day and most certainly in my parent’s generation. Adolescence, as much as we might cringe to acknowledge, is starting at younger and younger ages because kids have all kinds of social and media pressures to act older – which is problematic because they’re still just learning moral guideposts, but they’re faced with more and more situations where they have to figure out for themselves what the right course of action is within the confines of the very rigid and demanding framework of rules of their social world. And nothing has had more of an impact on their world than technology. When we were kids, if rumors were spread about us, it was by word of mouth. Now, when kids spread gossip about each other, it’s across the school and on the internet in seconds. If a girl takes a picture of her breasts with her cell phone and sends it to a boy she likes, hoping it’ll make him like her, there’s little stopping him from sending it to all his friends or for any of them from emailing it to all the other kids in school, who can all then call her a slut as they pass her in hallways. These kids are on Facebook or other social media sites, often with multiple accounts knowing their parents check one, and they’re very susceptible to “trolling” and acting online in ways you never would in person.

And it’s frustrating for parents or others who are trying to be good role models for these kids because it’s an age when the kids are trying to pull away from their parents. They alternate, sometimes without any apparent rhyme or reason, between being insecure and needing your hugs and rolling their eyes at you and treating you like you’re the biggest jerk ever. Ironically, I found it actually comforting that it’s completely normal to have moments where you really just DO NOT LIKE this kid and wonder how your sweet, wonderful daughter turned into this crazy person overnight. And it’s not just your kid…it’s pretty much every kid. Because whether they’re the Queen Bee, the Torn Bystander, or the socially outcast Target, they all have some role to play in their world. They all do something that maintains or challenges the social order and their actions affect their relationships with other kids AND what they learn about intimate relationships that can have repercussions throughout their lives. Even if their daily actions don’t, they will almost inevitably face moments where they will have to make critical decisions. And they bring that baggage home with them and it affects their moods and how they deal with family and others.

We’re all familiar with this because we all lived through this before too. But I think the reason this book is so helpful is because Wiseman (who is an educator who spent over a decade compiling observations and talking to a wide range of girls and boys and having them look over her drafts to ensure accuracy) helps explain things in the framework of the logic of the girl’s world. We, as adults, usually forget how this logic works because we’ve grown up. We see things with an adult perspective and respond in kind. In a certain sense, having an adult perspective means you see some things more clearly than your daughter does – and so you wonder why she puts up with it when others treat her like crap, or when she is the one being bossy or judgmental when you certainly didn’t raise her to be that kind of person. But sometimes our knee-jerk reactions (like when we say “Just ignore it” or “They’re just jealous of you”) don’t make sense in the framework of their logic and so are ineffective strategies.

And what is extra amazing about this book is that at the end of each section, Wisemen takes a moment to have parents reflect on their own experiences as adolescents and whether those experiences are informing how parents are acting as role models. It made me really reflect on some of my more formative experiences. For example, I think one of the biggest experiences happened to me in high school – and I didn’t even really recognize how big of an impact it had on me at the time; only with hindsight do I see its effects. In my junior year, I developed a crush on a friend (we’ll call him Daniel) and I found out he liked me too. But before anything happened between us, I went to Washington, DC for a week (it’s amazing how much can happen in a week when you’re a teenager) through an extracurricular school program, and when I came back I discovered after much drama and a flurry of back-and-forth phone calls that my friend (we’ll call her Alice) had gotten jealous and decided she liked Daniel too. And Daniel liked her back. And Daniel (oh, aren’t boys so sweet?), caught in the middle, came up and told me he liked both of us and wanted to date both of us simultaneously.

I was like, “Fuuuuuuuck no.” (Pardon my French.) Actually, I didn’t cuss him out. I just told him that if that was how he felt, he and Alice could just have each other. I was NOT going to be involved in that. I’m glad I stood up for myself and didn’t let him use me that way. But the whole experience did have a very dramatic impact on my ability to trust girl friends after that. And it was a long time before I could really develop female friendships with other girls that were really based on equality, trust, and mutual respect.

So it helps to think through what our own emotional baggage might be, to see how that might color the kind of guidance we give as role models.

And the key, fundamental guidepost behind the strategies Wiseman offers (that have been checked and approved by adolescents themselves as being helpful) is a core commitment to decency and respect – and giving kids the tools they need to act with that commitment in mind in a way that makes sense to them.

Does this meet any of your experiences? For those of you with adolescent daughters, have you had times where you were just at your wits’ end about how to guide her? Have you found her or her friends doing mean things over text message or the internet? Or has she been a target of such meanness? Do you have grade school experiences that have shaped you?

Women Unbound – The Poisonwood Bible

For my second entry for the Women Unbound challenge, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. As with my first entry, I’m not doing a traditional book review on these books, but instead discussing issues and thoughts that the book raised in my head. And hopefully I can provoke a discussion where I can hear and learn from the perspectives of others.

(As a side note: It was really interesting to read this one right after reading The Red Tent, because two of the main characters in this book are also named Rachel and Leah – two figures from Genesis. It made me think about the extent to which our names might shape our identity. Knowing that my name is Jade, does that compel me to be what I think a “Jade” should be? Would I be different if I were named Claudia or Brittany?)

To be honest, I was a little hesitant to post this review. I actually finished reading this a while ago, but took my sweet time before I posted it because it raises questions I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with here. But I decided to not post it and not deal with what the book made me think about – however uncomfortable – would be dishonest. And what other point would there be of this challenge than to make us face things we should face, even if we’d rather not? It wouldn’t be much of a “challenge” otherwise. So, here it is.

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Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is an exquisite work told from the perspective of the wife and four daughters of a Baptist preacher from Georgia on a mission to bring the Christian religion to the Congo. They come full of idealism and the smugness of good intentions, but soon find themselves consumed alive by the depth and mystery of the heart of Africa.

The novel tells a story of oppression on the family level mirrored on the nation level. The preacher, Nathan Price, is so full of his own assumptions: that he has all the answers and that he knows better than anyone else what is the higher good. He rules his family with an iron fist, refusing to listen to his wife and daughters, even when his actions bring them to suffering. Likewise, he attempts to impose the same rule over the natives. But his lack of understanding and refusal to listen and learn from others prevents him from seeing not only how his methods are ineffective (or sometimes positively dangerous) in helping the natives deal with their daily lives, but also how he makes a mockery of himself and renders him incapable of caring for even his own family. Kingsolver deftly weaves the various narratives, drawing forceful allusions to the character of U.S. foreign policy as well, as evidenced by Eisenhower and the CIA’s actions inserting the puppet dictator, Mobuto.

But to all these people who rule without understanding: the father, the preacher, the dictator, the imperialist, Kingsolver warns they will bring about their own demise. As she says, “Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them….Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time….What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on.” (384) (And isn’t that a fabulous turn of expression? That the processes of time are more powerful that the most iron-fisted tyrant? The occupier will cling, but the world will move on.)

The question that arises from the work for me, however, is what is the role of the oppressed? What do they do? What can they do? Price’s daughters offer each their own perspective: Ruth May, the innocent who is sacrificed; Rachel, the oblivious who makes her way anyway she can; Leah, the obedient who eventually becomes the disillusioned disciple hell-bent on repenting the sins of the father; and Adah, the cynic and martyr who sees all but can only survive by going her own way. Price’s wife, Orleanna, offers a final point of view: “To resist occupation, whether you’re a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain.” (383)

I often tell my students, in an effort to get them to become informed and active participants of the democratic process, that they need to be informed so they can protect themselves. I tell them they need to be engaged in politics to protect themselves from oppression – for how can you fight for your interests if you don’t even know how you’re being taken advantage of? But this is the story we tell ourselves when we live in a democracy. We tell ourselves the citizens have real power and that we can hold our leaders accountable. And this is true in theory, and it is true in anecdotes. But sometimes it is a little disingenuous because sometimes we don’t have such power. Sometimes we fight and fight, but there are higher powers in play, more powerful forces at work. And sometimes, I think we really need to be honest in admitting there might be a valid point to consider when someone asks – I mean, really, really asks the question: What is the point of knowing the chess master’s moves when you have no choice, whether he puts you in play or sacrifices you to silence at the side of the chessboard? Ignorance is bliss and sometimes it seems a blessing not to know the whys and wherefores of our pain.

Of course we want to inspire citizens to action. Of course we want them to feel empowered, to fight the good fight, and to not give up. But are we doing that to really empower them – including citizens with whom we disagree (or may even think are bat-sh*t crazy or impossibly naïve)? Or are we doing that to prove we’re right: that our ideology, democracy, really does work? And can we do that and still listen (without assuming we know better) and really hear them when they say, “Mama, it hurts”?

I ask this because sometimes the “language” people speak is not always the one we’re accustomed to listening for or hearing.

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P.S. Incidentally, after posting this, I was listening to an interview with Anne Kornblut (author of Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win) on NPR, where she mentioned that the US ranks 70th in the world when it comes to the proportion of elected representatives who are women. We rank 70th. Behind countries like Rwanda and North Korea – which, at least last I’ve heard, are not exactly the front-runners of social progress. So the question isn’t: “can women lead nations?” It’s: “Why, in the US, are women not leaders?” (Though, for my part, I think the reason people might not have voted for Clinton or Palin was not because they were women, but because they were those particular women. They did come with quite some baggage.)

P.P.S. I just have to add: I totally disagree with reviews that say this book is anti-Christian, anti-male because people don’t like the way she portrays Nathan Price. There are other Christians (including those who initially funded his mission) who behave very differently from he and meet with better success with the natives. As she says in the book, “There are Christians and then there are Christians.” It’s not Christianity she has a problem with, it’s Price’s attitude. Likewise with men. She has several other male figures who are more exemplary, Anatole, for instance. However, if I were to critique the book, I would say just about all of the last section could be lopped off and you wouldn’t miss much. It just went on and on and on…felt like she didn’t know how to end the book and so just kept writing.

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