Terrorized by Religion

Boy Erased

By Garrard Conley

There was a time when psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists considered homosexuality a disorder and experimented with a variety of techniques for curing the condition, the most notorious being transorbital lobotomies, torturous aversion therapies, mentally damaging blame the victim abuse, to name a few. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM-I. This, however, did not stop groups from pursuing ways to pressure individuals into changing their sexuality, or at least suppress it. In fact, currently, only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States prohibit what Garrard Conley writes about in novelistic memoir, Boy Erased. Love in Action (LIA), of which Conley writes, still operates, now under the name Restoration Path. John Smid, a real person appearing in Conley’s book, now admits that he was wrong, and acknowledges his homosexuality; in 2014, he married his spouse, Larry McQueen. You can detect bitterness at the end of Conley’s life story regarding the ex-gay leaders who now admit to the harm they did.

Conley recounts when a fellow student at his college who had raped him outed him to his parents. Both were very religious people, fundamentalists. Conley’s father owned a car dealership wherein he not only sold cars but proselytized to buyers and held prayer meetings with his employees. At the time, his father was on the verge of beginning a new life as an ordained pastor in the local Ministry Baptist Church. As for Conley, he appeared on the outside to be an ideal prospective minister’s son, replete with beautiful and popular girlfriend.

Conley’s parents were not the harsh types. They thought perhaps they had done something wrong, that maybe he was medically defective in some curable way, that professional help would put him back on the Christian path. LIA, which came highly recommended to them, seemed like a good option.

Conley recounts his time at LIA and with leader John Smid. LIA subjected Conley and the others to conversion therapy. This version, as explained by Conley, employed a 12-step approach. It forced participants to look deep into their family histories for issues, among them alcoholism, spousal abuse, and the like, that might account for the subjects’ aberrant behavior. As you might imagine, constantly dredging for problems, continually trying to prise from yourself some reason for your sexual abnormality, this unrelenting type of self-flagellation could lead to dangerous mental instability.

Coupled with this was Conley’s fundamentalist religious upbringing. His was, and probably remains, engaged in an inner battle to reconcile his sexuality with religious dogma that condemned him, that viewed his sexuality as a choice and thus a turning away from God. Conversion therapy only served to intensify this struggle.

Conley tries to convey his pain, but, unfortunately, in trying to treat his experience more like a novel than an introspective memoir, readers might not fully appreciate the agony such pseudo therapy caused him and others.

Boy Erased will appear as a film in late September, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. with screenplay adaptation and direction by Joel Edgerton, and may do a better job of portraying the emotional and mental turmoil non-acceptance can produce.

Those interested in LIA and religious conversion therapy in general might like to watch the documentary This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, as well as view a few interviews with survivors online. w/c

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Women in the American Dungeon

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner

Are you of the mind that each person must accept personal responsibility for how he or she leads their life, and that all that befalls them is of their own doing? Or, are you more inclined to think people, yes, must bear a certain degree of personal responsibility, but that they often have little control of many aspects of their lives, from formative years on into adulthood. In The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner speaks to you in the latter group, but she also appeals to you among the formers. People, she seems to say, do not develop in a vacuum, do not live in one either. Society must accept some responsibility for how members turn out, because it’s society that bestows upon people crippling disadvantages and encouraging advantages. In The Mars Room, society as represented by our justice system, doesn’t come off very well when dealing with flawed people it has helped create.

The novel follows protagonist Romy Hall from the time she enters the California prison system. She had worked as a stripper and lap dancer at a club in San Francisco called The Mars Room to support herself and her child, Jackson. There, she attracted a clientele of men who requested her for lap dances, among them Kurt Kennedy, an ugly brute of a fellow with a leg damaged in a motorcycle accident. Kurt develops an imaginary relationship with Romy and begins stalking her, even after she leaves the Mars Room to avoid him. He finds her, though, and in a confrontation kills him by bashing in his brains. As a result of what she sees as incompetent legal representation by an assigned public defender, she receives two life sentences with added time, ensuring she will never leave prison. Not to put to fine a point on it, is this really justice?

From the prison bus to incarceration, Romy interacts with a variety of female prisoners all imprisoned for a variety of violent crimes, from robbery/murder to child murder. Kushner portrays everything about their treatment as dehumanizing and their accommodations as second rate, particularly in comparison to what they imagine men receive. Kushner doesn’t have to work too hard to accomplish this, just reproduce the signage and literature from prisons.

One day, Gordon Hauser appears on the scene. He, in addition to Kurt Kennedy, is a character with his own voice. Hauser, who has encountered difficulty in pursuit of his advanced degree, takes a job at the prison helping women interested earn their GEDs. Prison personnel, of course, deride him. As with all prison employees, at first he undervalues his charges and, like other employees, finds himself being manipulated by the women for their own purposes. Romy, he discovers, is different, an intelligent women who seems to want to learn. He orders her books via Amazon delivered directly to her, as prison rules forbid direct gifts. While Romy does enjoy the books, she hopes to learn about her son through him. At first resistant, he does deliver news to her that proves devastating and propels her into a desperate last act.

Kushner’s writing here conveys the rawness and brutality of the women’s lives but it is not without humor. If there is a message it’s that society has had a hand in creating these women and has chosen to banish them from its collective mind to a remote dismal prison into an equally dismal geography removed from sight and reach. w/c

What a Son Doesn’t Know about a Father

Memento Park

By Mark Sarvas

In Mark Sarvas’ Memento Park—a brilliantly rendered tale of alienated son and distant father set against the backdrop of the Holocaust and postwar art restitution, death and survival, and current waves of antisemitism, all wrapped in a mystery—people in Matt Santos’ (Americanized version of his Hungarian name Mátyás Szantos) life tell him in reference to his father: “Do not make the mistake of assuming that because you know what someone will do, that you know who they are.” It’s only in the end, after much personal tribulation, dredging and reevaluating memory, that Matt begins to understand the advice and comes to appreciate his father. Any readers who have had less than Rockwellian relationships with their fathers will recognize many of the emotions and situations portrayed by Sarvas, though probably not at this level of heightened drama.

Matt Santos lives in L.A. He works as a moderately successful bit-part actor. He is a Jew who knows practically nothing about Judaism. His fiancé, Tracy, a lithesome Nordic beauty who contrasts physically with him, works as a catalogue fashion model. They have a good life together, though Matt is nearly estranged from his father, with Tracy maintaining the good relationship with the father, Gabor. That all changes when Matt receives a call from the Australian consulate regarding a painting confiscated by the Nazi’s during WWII. It may belong to him, his family, and its value is in the millions. Why call him and not his father? They have contacted Gabor and he has told them he has no interest in the painting. Since Matt has always seen his father as a hustler, Gabor’s rejection of the valuable painting rightly mystifies him.

As the story opens, we meet Matt studying the painting, by a modernist and persecuted Hungarian Jewish artist, Ervin Laszlo Kàlmàn (rendered very convincingly), who eventually committed suicide before being rounded up by the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi Party). Matt scrutinizes it for hours in advance of it going on the auction block, with the full knowledge of why his father rejected the painting, of his unknown family in Hungry, of his relationship with Tracy and his restitution lawyer, Rachel, who helped him seal his claim, and how his family hoped it would save them from the Arrow Cross.

This recollection of the weeks leading up to the hours in the gallery also remind readers of the Nazi persecutions and the desperate measures some took in hopes of survival. Readers, who may not be familiar with what took place in Hungry during the war and postwar as a Soviet client state, or perhaps even the current atmosphere in the country, get introduced to the Arrow Cross, to the monument to massacred Jews “Shoes on the Danube,” as well as the ill-fated Hungarian revolt of 1956 and Soviet domination when Matt and Rachel visit Memento Park, the giant outdoor art installation containing the grandiose statues of the Soviet era.

Additionally, while the novel doesn’t explore the topic of virulent antisemitism in contemporary Hungry in-depth, Sarvas does make readers acutely aware of its existence. Matt not only is trying to understand his father, he’s also connecting with being Jewish. As part of connecting, he personally experiences the antisemitic currents of modern Hungry when he attempts stopping young thugs from desecrating the “Shoes on the Danube.” He suffers a serve beating, landing him in the hospital to be confronted by an unsympathetic and antisemitic police inspector. In other words, what faced his parents and grandparents in old Hungry, what engendered the incident with the painting, to a degree it stills exists in Hungry, though readers will realize this as just one of many places, that include the U.S.

Matt always saw his father as a rather harsh and judgmental man because he was judgmental with Matt. But the father had lived through, bore scars greater than, Matt could imagine. Tracy and Rachel’s admonishment quoted at the top is why Matt couldn’t cut through the fog of his youth to really see his father, until the painting. He does, finally, and heeds one of his father’s often voiced commands, Pay Attention. w/c

Does Mike Pence Want to Be The Commander?

We don’t know about you, but when we see Mike Pence we can’t help but imagine him as The Commander in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of a theocratic America. We think he would be quite comfortable in that world, and even keep to his Billy Graham rule regarding never being in the presence of a woman, other than his wife, alone. Dismiss this as having fun with Pence, but be reminded the man who famously declaimed, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican … in that order,” that man is a heartbeat from being president. So, if you watch the filmed version of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu or you read the book, it’s probably not hard to picture Mike Pence as The Commander. The best way to thwart men like him is to vote against everything they represent this November.

The Handmaid’s Tale

By Margaret Atwood

According to the best dystopian novels of the 20th century, we should be living or on our way to living in any of a various number of hellholes: a dehumanized, caste hierarchy of factory-manufactured people (Brave New World, 1932); the overthrow of democratic government in the U.S. (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935); a dehumanized, brutal dictatorship propped up by manufactured history and terror (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949); a dehumanized world that suppresses feelings and enforces subjugation by destroying literary thought (Fahrenheit 451, 1953); a “crime free” world in which authorities use predictive techniques to forestall murder (The Minority Report, 1956); a crime ridden world in which science attempts to recondition gangbangers (A Clockwork Orange, 1962); and to bring a potentially very long list to the point, the book in hand, a theocratic dictatorship in a willfully destroyed environment in which women find themselves formally classified and subjugated under the control of men, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985.

All these imaginings of the world gone wrong are worth your reading time, but Margaret Atwood’s tale is somewhat special among them. She focuses squarely on the reduction of women as mere productive machinery, and a handful as reproductive engines. At its most basic and its most forceful, The Handmaid’s Tale is about women deprived of all rights and forced into sexual slavery, women reduced to their most elemental biological function, and valued for nothing else.

In broad strokes, we find ourselves in the former United States of America now transformed after a bloody revolution into the Republic of Gilead some time in an indeterminate future. Ofred (meaning Of Fred, as belonging to him) takes up her station in the Commander’s house. Her purpose is to produce a child for the Commander and his wife, who, one or the other or both, are sterile, through a ritualized ersatz religious ceremony, basically a depersonalizing and dehumanizing approach to baby making. During the telling, we learn of Ofred’s previous life, in which she had a child, her training and indoctrination to be a (forced) Handmaid, the resentment and anger directed at her by other women, and her own determination to maintain her personality and eventually escape to free Canada.

This novel has sold very well since publication. Lately, sales have been brisk due to its serialization on Hulu. Perhaps you have watched the first season and wish to compare it to the original. You’ll find it true in the most critical ways and expansive in others. Reading the book, you marvel at how strange is this work of female slavery. The series brings the total bizarreness of Gilead to vivid life. Some scenes are quite horrifying, not because they are violent, but because they feel so alien in a way you think the characters should realize. Even more freakish than the impregnation ceremony is the birth ritual; it’s a jaw dropper on film.

Finally, as you read the novel or view the series or do both, keep this in mind: much of what you will read and see is not entirely fiction. As Margaret Atwood has stated and as the press has confirmed, much of the oppression is happening currently in the U.S. and other countries. Some examples include: gunning down refugees fleeing an oppressive government; children taken from women and given to well off families; forcing women to bear children and valuing them for only this ability; marital rape; decreasing fertility rates in developed countries; restrictions on women’s free movement and the ability to own property; protesters being shot; genital mutilation of women; and more. It’s this borrowing from the real world that makes Atwood’s dystopian Gilead even more terrifying. w/c

Iowa: How to Repress American Women

On May 4, 2018, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the U.S. While bad in and of itself for women, particularly poor women, Reynolds and her supporters hope and expect the law to be challenged and eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, clearly as an effort to repeal the Roe vs. Wade ruling. If religious conservatives have their way, what kind of America might women wake up to? Most are too young to remember mid-20th century America, though you could talk to women who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. You can also head to your local bookstore or Amazon for a copy of Leni Zumas’ novel about a near future dystopian America that criminalizes women’s control of their own bodies. (This has been the case in Ireland until by referendum a significant majority voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a version of the Personhood Amendment, which is the subject of Red Clocks. Even with this vote, the new Irish amendment will be quite restrictive.) Women, especially young women, should really mark their calendars and vote in November. In overwhelming numbers, you can control you fate in America. And if what we are saying makes sense to you, please repost this for others to see.

Red Clocks

By Leni Zumas

Leni Zumas uses the Personhood Amendment as the impetus for her novel about the lives of four disparate women, plus a fictional 19th century historical figure, to illustrate in dramatic fashion the constraints under which many women struggle now and perhaps in the near future if certain zealots get their way. She further emphasizes her points by compartmentalizing these women by their primary roles: The Biographer, The Wife, The Daughter, and The Mender. The historical figure, an ambitious woman who doesn’t hew to the societal demands of her time, is simply a woman, itself, when you view the novel this way, a restrictive compartment.

The novel follows the lives of these women living in a small Oregon coastal fishing town, including how they interact with each other. The Biographer, Ro, researches and writes a biography of 19th century Arctic explorer Eivør Mínervudottir, teaches at the local high school, and tries via IVF to have a baby before her biological clock and a new law sounds expiration. The Wife, Susan, raises two children as she suffocates in her marriage to her teacher husband, who seems indifferent to her and certainly self-absorbed. The Daughter, Mattie, an adopted child, finds herself pregnant and desperate, as abortions have been outlawed and harming a fetus in anyway is a crime. The Mender, Gin, a young crone of sorts, lives in the woods, prefers the company of her animals to humans, and sells herbal remedies to townspeople. And Eivør forms something of an intermezzo between chapters not only adding a note of emphasis to the issues faced by the characters but also reminding us that severely restricting women to certain accepted roles has always been the norm.

These women prove complex, more expansive than their definitions, but also squarely within them as well. Ro nearly impoverishes herself trying to become pregnant but puts aside her desires to help, though not without much inner torment, Mattie resolve her unwanted pregnancy. Susan struggles to exit her marriage and builds up lots of resentment toward Ro, who she views as free, though Ro resents Susan partly because she has what Ro desires. Gin, for her part, can’t help but be involved with others in town, regardless of how much she wishes most to be left alone.

Hanging over all of them and affecting them in different ways is the Personhood Amendment, which steals control of their lives from them and imposes potentially severe punishments and restrictions upon them. This, for those not familiar, for in fact it is a real proposal pushed by some antiabortion groups, declares life begins at conception, triggering a whole laundry list of laws, among them murder for abortions, no contraception, and more. In the novel, this is coupled with it being illegal to go to Canada for an abortion, as you will be turned away, even arrested, at the “Pink Wall,” the requirement of two, a man and woman, as parents, and the impending end to IVF. Since all these currently don’t exist but could if some had their way, the novel has the flavor of a dystopian future.

Some may find the novel’s flow a bit disjointed and the writing a little showy, while others may not think it dystopian enough in the sense of being technologically removed from our time. But for others interested in how society works, and can work even harder, to mold women to limited expectations, the novel will resonate. w/c

Meet These Demure White Racists of Old

Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause

By Caroline E. Janney

For those interested in how the South memorialized the Civil War and shaped for a long time historical thought on why the war was fought by mythicizing how it was remembered Perdue and past president of The Society of Civil War Historians, Prof. Janney’s monograph makes a very good companion volume to David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By examining a select group of Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAS), she shows how upper class Southern white women attended to the burial of the Confederate dead, paid tribute to the fallen in the first Memorial Day commemorations, and played a major role in propagating the tenets of the Lost Cause effort. In tandem, she illustrates how these women created effective organizations that allowed them to exert political and long lasting historical influence in a fashion resembling a variety of  women-driven associations forming nationwide in latter 19th century America.

Immediately after the Civil War ended, the victorious North greatly restricted the political activities of white Southern men to the point where any civic act might be considered treason, even burying war dead. White Southern women of privilege filled the gap by forming LMAS. These organizations raised funds from throughout the South to relocate Confederate dead from scattered battlefields (a function performed for the Northern dead by the federal government) to graveyards in or near their hometowns. Janney examines the associations formed in the towns and cities of Winchester (Shenandoah Valley), Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and Richmond.

While LMAS dominated the memorialization of the dead in the early years, after Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, men began to contest the women’s authority in the area of memorialization. Too, later in the century, women coalesced into a larger regional organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (still today a charitable 501 C organization). Among Janney’s points is that Southern white women participated in memorializing their war dead and propagating the cornerstones of Lost Cause long before most historians realized or acknowledged.

Lest you think all this nice to know, be aware that the work of the LMAS and the UDC remain with us today, particularly the memorial statuary you can find in towns throughout the South. And what do these memorials symbolize? The Lost Cause, the underlying bedrock of which can be summarized in two words: white supremacy. w/c

Who Won the History of the Civil War?

Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

By David W. Blight

Even before the Civil War ended, people began forming their own memories about it, in particular about what caused it. Depending upon when and where you grew up in the U.S., it’s a good bet you may not share the same understanding of the cause. In fact, if you think about the Civil War at all, you probably focus on the battles, the generals, the valiantness of soldiers, and the like. You may not even use the term Civil War, but maybe War Between the States, or the War for Southern Independence, to name but a few. It’s worth pausing and asking yourself why many of us still to this day, more than 150 years after the guns silenced, carry around varying memories of among the most monumental periods in American History. Because, as David W. Blight, Yale prof and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center (for the study of slavery, resistance, and abolition) shows, a second struggle ensued. This involved words, societies, memorials, monuments, and a generalized racism that continues to this day. Memory, as Blight forcefully demonstrates, is quite malleable.

In brief summary, three strains of thought regarding the war developed in the years following its conclusion. These were emancipationists, white supremacists, and reconciliationists. For a time, the emancipationists prevailed, primarily during Reconstruction (voting rights, approximate equal treatment under the law, and the like). But nearly after the war’s end, whites (think the Klan, separation of races, distorted histories) began terrorizing freedmen, white leaders rebelled against Reconstruction (even today many recall it as harsh retribution), and writers started constructing a mythology that cast the Antebellum South and the war in a golden hue, which, among other things, portrayed slaves as loyal and faithful to their masters, as liking their condition, and most perniciously as simple minded and barbaric (if not taken in hand and guided by the white race). You can find and read works by Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Dixon, and Margaret Mitchell, all of whom’s titles are available on Amazon, to experience these first-hand.

In short, the South, with the acquiesce of reconcilationists, rewrote history and this rewrite pervaded even the North. Those interested in reconciliation and moving forward did so by ignoring the virulent racism in the South. Rather than a war to end slavery, the aftermath became something of a reversal to memorialize aspects of the Antebellum South, it became the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, and memorialization because the honoring of old traditions at graveyards, with marches, and plenty of speechifying honoring the dead, even if what was called honor came in the service of an evil cause.

How this came about makes for a fascinating historical tale told well and in detail by Blight. More, though, it serves as yet another illustration of how propagandizing can distort and even change the collective memory of events, because memory isn’t necessarily factual and it can be, and has been more than once, molded. w/c