sex and murder

helter skelterThis spring I ended up reading two books on eerily similar topics. Well, the fact that the subject matter — accounts of spectacular criminal trials — overlapped is not that much of a surprise, since I love true crime. Both proceedings, 40 years apart, garnered excessive media attention because of the suggestion of sex-fueled ritual murder.

Recommended by a friend of a friend, Helter Skelter is the story of what has come to be known as the Manson Family murders. The title refers to the Beatles song from which cult leader Charles Manson derived the harrowing philosophy of racial warfare that led him to order the killing of at least 11 people in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 1969.

The book was penned by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who managed to get Manson convicted of all of the murders committed by Manson’s cult — even though he wasn’t present at any of them. Bugliosi indicted Manson on charges of conspiracy, a legal technicality that allows for co-defendants to be convicted of crimes that any of the group did; he just had to convince a jury that Manson had control of his disciples.

That turned out to be easier than you might think, because Manson wasn’t reticent about the power he cultivated and wielded. He never admitted outright the command to kill, but he told Bugliosi plenty about his “Family,” the term Manson used for the followers that he assembled, lived with, and directed in orgies at a ranch in the hills west of Los Angeles. And the Family members were equally frank about their slavish loyalty to the man they considered “G-d,” or “Jesus Christ.”

Bugliosi didn’t take any chances, though, and he tells with fastidious, fascinating detail how he shaped the case that put Charles Manson behind bars, where he remains to this day. The thoroughly compelling account is only slightly marred by the fact that Bugliosi writes himself as the only competent character on both sides of the legal team; the LAPD detectives in particular come across as buffoons, while Bugliosi saves the day (by doing their work as well as his).

Overall, though the book is great, one of the best non-fiction accounts I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it — though perhaps not, as I read a good deal of it, alone, late at night, in a house that backs up to a wooded expanse. The Manson Family, as it turns out, selected their victims pretty much at random, and I was irrationally sure I was next.

waiting to be heardThe other book I tackled was not of the same quality. But that wasn’t really the point: As soon as I heard the release date for Amanda Knox’s book (April 30, timed to coincide with her first post-prison interview), I went to the Brookline Public Library’s online catalog and requested a copy. I got it on May 7, and I had read it by May 9. Like many, I followed the infamous case — the four-year journey of a murder conviction that was ultimately overturned — partly because it was portrayed as so lurid, and partly because I just love the genre.

Waiting to Be Heard is not great literature, but it is a good read. In November 2007, 20-year-old Amanda Knox had been in Perugia, Italy, for just five weeks when her British roommate was found brutally killed in the villa that the two shared with two other Italian women. Knox and her boyfriend of one week were later arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder — which conviction was overturned in 2011, leading to their release. The book is the story, told with help from a ghostwriter in a voice that I can only imagine actually approximates Amanda’s own, of those years.

The narrative is marked from the beginning by her defensiveness about almost every action that led to her arrest, somewhat understandably since they were all, to a one, used against her in the trial. And they were the actions of an immature young woman, just barely not a teenager anymore. Knox is as staggeringly naive as Manson was creepily controlling. I can understand a college student with no conception of police tactics or criminal investigations, leading to wince-inducing efforts to cooperate with an increasingly hostile prosecutor. However, Knox also expresses shock — shock! — that the family of her murdered roommate seems angry at her when she first encounters them in a courtroom after her arrest. The police, the media, fine — but the victim’s family thinks I’m guilty, too? And it’s not entirely clear that her years in prison did much to disabuse her of that naiveté. But maybe that’s a blessing. I was genuinely disturbed, when, before the verdict her retrial, she wrote a list of things to do if she received a life sentence: stop writing letters homeask family and friends to forget mesuicide? But the end of book makes clear that Amanda Knox will find her way again.

Since I always do in my true crime stories, I’ll weigh in here, too. Manson: guilty; Knox: not guilty. Manson in all likelihood was precisely the monster he was made out to be, while Knox simply couldn’t have been the sex-and-drug-addicted femme fatale as she was portrayed.

a world apart

This week I was assigned Cristina Rathbone’s A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars as part of my Foundations of Prison Ministry class. I was only required to read parts, but I ended up tearing through the whole thing. It helped that I had a snow day on Tuesday.

The book hits close to home (it looks like I’m calling Boston home now!) because the author lives in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood just a few miles away from mine. Plus, the subjects of the book are women incarcerated at nearby MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, where I mentor an inmate who is in Boston University’s College Behind Bars program. I visit her as part of an interfaith initiative between Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological Seminary, the CIRCLE Prison Justice and Ministry Program.

Rathbone’s relationships with the five women whose stories constitute the majority of the book developed over five years — and were only the result of years of initial litigation for access to the prison. As she notes at the outset, she has just about only been in MCI-Framingham’s visiting room. But despite the considerable efforts of the powerful Massachusetts Department of Corrections to keep her out, Rathbone presents a comprehensive picture of life on the inside (in so far as any outsider can tell, I suppose).

The importance of the book lies in the fact that, Rathbone notes, “women behind bars are startlingly unlike their more violent male counterparts. Predominantly incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, they are frequently mere accessories to their crimes: girlfriends, wives, or lovers of drug dealers, even leaseholders of apartments in which drugs are stashed. Almost all have serious drug problems themselves, and about half are victims of domestic abuse.” It stands to reason that life inside a women’s prison would be different, too.

If the stereotypical male experience in prison is working out, illegal procurement of weapons and drugs, physical violence, and trying to escape, the stereotypical female experience is eating junk food, illegal procurement of underwear and personal hygiene products, gossiping, and trying to see children. But sex is the great unifier: It turns out that almost everyone, in both environments, sleeps with a fellow inmate or a guard.

The book alternates between the stories of a handful of women and the history of women’s incarceration in the U.S. I found the latter only of passing interest, in part because how little effect the past has had on the trajectory of how women now fare in the criminal justice system. The first women’s prison, Mount Pleasant, opened in 1838 on the grounds of the infamous Sing Sing prison, and it was closed in 1850. MCI-Framingham, which opened in 1877, is the oldest running women’s prison in the U.S., so its history could be instructive. But it falls into a depressingly rhythmic pattern: A reform-minded woman takes over and institutes changes aimed at true rehabilitation, and then a (usually male) higher-up decides that the programs and practices are self-indulgent and replaces the reformer with a traditionalist. And then a reform-minded woman takes over again . . . The regularity of the ups and downs made me wonder whether a permanent revolution will ever be possible.

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

rug hooking class at MCI-Framingham, 1948; photo via Framingham Public Library

In Rathbone’s account, MCI-Framingham, probably like many prisons in the era of government budget shortfalls, has very little in the way of programming. She writes: “Its website indicates a long list of programs available to the women of Framingham . . . but when you take into account the diversity and breadth of its population, it remains a fact that each women at MCI-Framingham has access to fewer programs, and therefore to fewer privileges and less prison-earned ‘good time,’ than most male prisoners in the state.” Indeed, Rathbone’s analysis is that the sexism of our society is reflected in the prison system: Men get disproportionate resources. But women in prison have disproportionate need, in part because of past abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, and their responsibility for children.

Sidebar: For what it’s worth, I should note a criticism of this analysis: Our class discussion on the book was led (in the absence of my professor) by Rev. Joyce Penfield, executive director of The Blessing Way, a Rhode Island institution that provides “spiritual guidance for reentry & recovery.” She argued that per capita, women get vastly more resources than men: There are more programs in men’s prisons, but they constitute 94% of the country’s prison population. I’m not sure that this changes the experience of scant resources that the women in Framingham report, but I feel compelled to mention this disagreement. And Penfield even went further, suggesting that her experience in the Rhode Island penal system is one of plenty where women are concerned.

Most compelling, as is so often the case, are the stories Rathbone tells. These are women you want to root for: None of them ever had much to begin with, were given pretty short shrift in life, and are now facing just about the steepest uphill climbs you can imagine. Most heartbreaking were the struggles with child-rearing. As women are most often the primary caregivers in our society, so too are they in prison. And they seemed to spend most of their energy behind bars monitoring the often insecure living situations of their kids. Unlike the majority of incarcerated men, each woman could not rely on her children’s other parent to do the care-taking in her absence.

Somewhat mystifying was Rathbone’s treatment of sexual relationships at the prison. She devotes a number of pages to the prevalence of these illicit affairs (physical touch between inmates and just about anyone is forbidden), both between prisoners and between prisoners and guards. Such contact is commonplace, even rampant, for all the same reasons that it is on the outside: One of the women in the book, who resists such affairs for most of her time in prison, even witheringly notes that her fellow inmates just replicate on the inside the same problematic relationships they had on the outside. Her cellmate hooks up with almost every officer that is interested, while another woman is involved in an abusive relationship with a fellow prisoner. And these relationships, like everything else in jail, are commodities. What’s lacking, to my mind, is a discussion of the question of whether carceral relationships can ever be truly consensual, particularly between inmates and guards. Rathbone only talks very briefly about allegations of rape in that institutional context — but devotes an entire chapter to a now-defunct web site that seeks to connect men to incarcerated women (ultimately called “Jail Babes” but originally and unfortunately dubbed “Jail Bait”). Maybe that says something important: As Rathbone begins her book, “Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises.”

steubenville

Trigger warning: This post alludes to a graphic sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.

For better or worse, the name of this Ohio town, which used to be associated with the high school football team that was its pride and glory, will likely become synonymous with “teenage gang rape,” much as Abu Ghraib has become synonymous with “torture and prisoner abuse.” Ironically, in Steubenville the former — a cult of football player worship that is all too common in the United States — played a huge role in the latter — an atmosphere in which multiple athletes assaulted a classmate too drunk to consent.

Today the two boys who committed the assault, a six-hour ordeal of which the survivor has no memory but which was extensively documented on social media, were convicted of rape. The 17-year-old will serve at least two years in the state juvenile system; the 16-year-old, at least one year. It’s possible that they will be incarcerated until they are 24 and 21, respectively. Extension of the sentences is at the discretion of the state’s Department of Youth Services.

I felt relief when I heard about the conviction. From the event all the way through the trial, it seemed — at least from my limited vantage point, through local and national media — that the town was generally rallying around “their boys” and were blaming the victim, as people are so wont to do. Indeed, many of their classmates hurriedly deleted videos of and text messages about the assault when the boys realized that, wow, people are kind of upset about this and we might have done something wrong. Two of the victim’s former friends testified that she is often intoxicated at parties and “lies about things.” There was much hand-wringing over the boys’ futures, football and otherwise. I feared that the circling of the wagons around the perpetrators would be successful.

jailed rapists

jailed rapists (source: RAINN)

I also felt that the punishments were at least to some extent appropriate, though I can’t help but hope that the punishments end up on the longer end of the possibilities (more on that below). I may be in the minority in this sentiment, judging by a (highly unscientific) review of today’s Facebook posts about the verdict. A friend of a friend expressed surprised outrage that rape is not punishable by 25 years to life. To which I want to burst out laughing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), accounting for unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever spend time in jail. And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of 1992, the average sentence for rapists was just shy of 12 years, with average actual time served about five-and-a-half years. (The current arrest rate for rape, about 25%, has remained unchanged since the 1970s, so there’s little reason to believe that sentences have changed either.) To say that rape is rarely punished via the criminal justice system is an understatement.

I spent seven years in D.C. volunteering at the local rape crisis center. I have little sympathy for rapists.

I also spent the same amount of time working and volunteering for drug policy reform organizations. I have little confidence in the criminal justice system.

And indeed, my experience working with survivors of sexual assault taught me the same lesson: The criminal justice system simply doesn’t do what we hope it does.

This semester I’m taking “Foundations of Prison Ministry” at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To whatever small extent I wasn’t before, I am now thoroughly horrified at our criminal justice system. I can’t condone caging human beings for inordinate amounts of time. I have no trust that we are putting away the “right” people. And I am certain that we’re not rehabilitating anyone.

Sidebar: I just wrote 10 pages for my class midterm about why the criminal justice system is abominable — and I barely scratched the surface in so doing — so I am obviously not able to do it justice (heh) in this post. For a good primer, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to read a whole book. As a citizen of this nation, you don’t have time not to read it! /rant

Ultimately, what I am saying is that I am divided. I don’t think we should be locking kids up for long periods of time (and never for life). And the criminals in this case are kids. Stupid, self-entitled, shameless, sadistic scum. But kids nonetheless. (The New York Times reported that the boy sentenced to at least one year told his lawyer upon hearing the decision, “My life is over.” To my mind there’s no clearer indication of the immaturity at work here. And I still want to scream at him about the life of the girl he assaulted.) These kids merit punishment. So in our very limited criminal justice system arsenal, I am forced to admit that some jail time seems like the best option.

But I concede this knowing that whatever good these boys will learn over the next year, two years, or five years, they will find in spite of their incarceration, and not because of it. More than likely, they’ll come out more desensitized than they went in. They’re for damn sure not going to learn in juvenile how to be men in a way different from that which rape culture promotes. And shouldn’t that be our goal?

happy first birthday

On Tuesday No Power in the ‘Verse turned one! I started this blog in the midst of applying to rabbinical school, and I am now trying to finish up my first semester. In that time, I’ve written 63 posts — more than my goal of once a week! Thank you, dear reader(s?), for accompanying me on this journey.

where the magic happens

where the magic happens; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Some of my favorite posts:

My most popular post (because, I think, my husband shared it on Facebook) was about my being forced to think about what makes a marriage.

I continue to enjoy writing posts about the books I read, but those don’t seem to garner many readers. But that’s okay: They, like this blog in general, are first and foremost for me.

This space is proof that writing is a very effective form of therapy.

feminist fishbowl

On Wednesday I spoke on a panel — or more properly, a fishbowl — about feminism at my school’s community time (held once a week for an hour-and-a-half) in advance of our winter seminar the week before school starts again in January, which will be on the topic of feminist theology and practice. Also on the panel were a faculty member (a man) and two fourth-year students (a man and a woman).

We each had four minutes (!), and I was super nervous, in part because I still don’t know the community very well, and I am just not sure where people are on feminism (yes, I know). In the end, I felt that it went really well. It was such an important experience for me personally, since, as I’ve been sharing, I’ve been having a hard time with the very painful misogyny in many of the texts that we’re studying. It felt great to have my say, to share my worldview. Which is, of course, the essence of feminism.

These are the questions that I was asked to respond to, and following that is what I said (slighted edited from notes into a more readable format, and including a few sentences I had to cut on the spot in the interests of time).

1. What does feminism mean to you?
-What is your working definition of feminism/feminist practice?
-How did you arrive at this conception of feminism?
-How is feminism lived out in your life? Your relationships? Your work? Your Jewish practice?

2. Why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism?

____________________________________________________
My feminist practice works towards the liberation of all marginalized people, not just women. I have unerring commitment to intersectionality: The patriarchy perpetuates not just sexism but lots of other -isms/privilege: racism, ableism, cisgenderism, heteronormativism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. The identity of an oppressed person is not just shaped by gender.

Essentially, our world is perfectly suited to educated, wealthy, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men, and there are way more people who are not that. This means that a very small group of people have power and privilege. I’d like to create a world that is suited to all people.

patriarchyI can’t walk away from misogyny, so I can’t walk away from feminism. And I won’t walk away from feminism, because it is the only defense I have in world that is hostile to me –  not the other way around.

I’ve never taken a women’s studies or feminist theory class. In fact, I spent my college years doing just about the opposite, studying classics (ancient Greek and Latin texts). The definition above was forged in the fires of the rape crisis center where I worked as a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for seven years; I received extensive training before I started and ongoing training as I continued to volunteer. I answered crisis calls on a 24-hour hotline, and I went to the hospital when patient identified as a sexual assault survivor. (For simplicity, I will be talking about survivors as women, but I want to acknowledge that women are not at all the only people who are raped.)

I understand the phenomenon of sexual assault in a feminist context: that is, rape is about power and control, and not desire or libido. It is perhaps the most violent manifestation of patriarchy, and it is a direct result of the “rape culture” in which we live.

Rape culture is set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women; it views sexual violence as a fact of life, when in fact what we think of as immutable is an expression of values and views that can change. In addition to its the part it plays in the lives of women, rape culture also narrowly circumscribes men’s roles.

A few examples: rape culture is 1 in 33 men and 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; rape culture is encouraging women to take self-defense as though that is the only solution required to prevent rape; rape culture is the claim that sex workers can’t be raped; rape culture is the threat of being raped in prison being an acceptable deterrent to committing crime; rape culture is tasking women with the burden of not getting raped and failing to admonish men not to rape; rape culture is refusing to acknowledge that the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never to be in the same room as a rapist.

My feminist practice is based on the principle that the personal is political. Just to give two examples: I listen. I know precisely my experience of sexism, but that does not mean that I know what it’s like to be queer, or a person of color, or disabled, or any number of things. It behooves me to check my privilege and to listen and to accept as true others’ telling of their experiences

And on the flip side: I tell my story. As an excellent web resource says, “Because women’s stories aren’t told, it’s incumbent upon female feminists to tell their own stories, to fill that void, to be unrepentant and loquacious raconteurs every chance we get, to talk about our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, our needs, our lives in every aspect. It’s our obligation to create a cacophony with our personal narratives, until there is a constant din that translates into equality, into balance.”

Finally, why is it important for Hebrew College, as a community, to be talking about feminism? Because we’re still asking that question.

RAPE

Trigger warning: This post is about my struggle over the past few months with being triggered by various events, as result of my many years of volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C. It doesn’t contain details of any sexual assault, but it nevertheless may be upsetting for survivors.

This is a hard post to write for many reasons — and not just because it’s highly personal. But I process by writing, and this issue has become part of my rabbinical school experience. And it will likely come up again.

I realized two weeks ago that I’ve been re-traumatized — and have been in that process for a few months — by a confluence of events. When it finally occurred to me, I felt enormous relief. Being able to put a name and a reason to what I’d been feeling was incredibly comforting. Then I felt stupid: How could I have not realized what was happening, and how could I not have realized how long it had been going on? I’d been feeling overly emotional, on edge, scared, out of control, hurt by things that were not personal, unable to hear anything about sexual assault without intense pain. And on and on. Basically, I felt crazy, and I didn’t know why. And I’ve felt this way before, and I’ve had this realization before. I just had to get there. AGAIN.

mlk quote on store window; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

It started during the pre-semester seminar at school, in which we looked at the Torah and Haftarah readings for the high holidays. One day in class we started talking about trauma. I don’t remember how we got there, and I don’t remember how we got out of there. I just remember sitting in chair, my brain screaming, “No! No! NO! No-stop-talking-stop-talking-please.” I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. The presentation I wrote for the end of the seminar was,in retrospect, a clue that things were getting difficult.

I underestimated how triggering rabbinical school would be. By which I mean that I didn’t think about it at all. This, too, seems foolish in retrospect. There is no shortage of abusive texts in the Jewish tradition, and I think I’ve only touched a handful so far. From stories of sexual assault in the Tanakh to an explanation in the Talmud that women die in childbirth for not observing halakha, the fear and disgust of women is  . . . everywhere. When we read and discussed the story of the gang rape and dismemberment of an unnamed woman in Judges, I wanted to weep.

Compounding the experiences of reading these texts is being a Hebrew College student — a wonderful experience, but also one that has left me feeling more vulnerable than usual. This is a very earnest community, and I am asked to share of myself often — or at least more than I was in my everyday life in D.C. I thus feel more emotionally “raw” than I have in the past.

And then there was a sexual assault on the campus of Andover Newton Theological Seminary (ANTS), which shares the hill with Hebrew College. The president of ANTS came to an all-school meeting to . . . I don’t know: Give us more information about it? I couldn’t stay in the room to hear it. I was terrified. I had no idea what kind of training the president had, so I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t saying anything triggering. Was she going to tell us what happened? What ANTS was doing? Whether the rapist was a member of the community or a stranger? To what end? I don’t even think that “sharing information” serves any purpose, since the only way to stop rape is for rapists to stop raping. There’s simply nothing a potential victim can do to ensure his/her safety.

And then there was the election. With all of the rape. I am glad that dominant narrative was that these old men need to just stop talking — and I rejoiced when they all, to a one, lost their elections — but I still stand in shock that our nation’s leaders, to say nothing of their constituents, think it’s acceptable to make such callous statements about sexual assault survivors.

And then a friend of mine was raped.

Hence the title of my post. It has been as though in every direction I turned there was in front of me a giant neon sign. It hasn’t been this bad in many years. Most of the time, I can say “ouch,” and then move on. But not this time. This time, I felt buried under the avalanche.

I feel better now, better than I have in a while. It’s an unbelievably empowering action to be able to name what is going on. I am also doing more self-care, recognizing that some of my self-destructive behavior was a result of being triggered.

I know I’m going to feel “normal” again soon. I also know that I’m not going to make it through another five-and-a-half years if I don’t. I’m beginning to think about how to deal with what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.” I hope that I’ll be able to try on a variety of options for engaging with these texts and with my tradition. There are women at Hebrew College who have done a lot of work in this area. I’ve thought about doing some writing, to perhaps give [my] voice to the voiceless.

For now, I am grateful just to feel more like myself. Which is challenging enough without the experience of trauma.

riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

feminist teshuvah

I wrote this two weeks ago as a final assignment for the fall seminar for first-year students, which looked at the Torah and Haftarah portions – and critical analysis of both – for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We were asked to reflect on something we found interesting or significant from the readings and to present that reflection to the class. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more accessible to readers not in that class.

Thus for me, teshuva between women and G-d implies not just G-d holding me responsible for the ways I have failed as a human being, but also me holding G-d responsible for failing me as a Jewish woman by giving me a world and a people and a text that continue to betray women, often making it difficult for us to uphold our side of the covenant.

I almost fell off of my bed after I read this passage from Tamara Cohen’s essay, “Returning to Sarah,” in Beginning Anew. To say that it resonated with me would be a vast understatement. I don’t think a piece of text has so perfectly spoken to me in 10 years, since I read Anita Diamant’s Choosing a Jewish Life – the main impetus for the Jewish journey that eventually led me here.

The passage gave me permission to be mad at G-d. The tradition I grew up in did not allow that, and my inchoate theology tends towards a G-d that is not directly responsible for the state of things. Our mischegas is our own.

A world and a people and a text that continue to betray women.

[B]etray women.

This is my experience, from growing up in a tradition of strict gender roles, to working at an all girls’ boarding school in North Carolina, to volunteering at the rape crisis center in D.C.

I am grateful to now be a part of a community whose commitment to egalitarianism seems to be firm, but I know this to be an aberration. (And I know that there will be failures on that front; we live in a world of male privilege, after all.)

My life thus far has been a daily, run-into-a-wall encounter between the way that I experience life and a privileged experience of life. And that’s my experience as an upper-middle-class, straight white woman – to say nothing of the experience of people of color, or queer folks.

I feel that betrayal acutely, in ways large and small.

I feel it when last summer’s debt crisis – which almost led to a default and did lead to a downgrade in U.S. credit by world debtors – ended only when the president agreed to a bill rider that prohibited the District of Columbia from directing its own tax revenues to subsidize abortions for District residents.

I feel it in the lack of basic labor protections – standard for most workers in this country – for domestic employees, the women that care for our children, houses, and elders.

I feel it when our secretary of state – our nation’s top diplomat – is asked which fashion designers she prefers.

I feel it when sports teams at my alma mater are referred to as “the Longhorns” . . . and “the Lady Longhorns.”

I feel it when I get mail, as I did yesterday, addressed to “Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Grossberg.”

Last Wednesday at hesbon hanefesh (“account of the soul”) a teacher asked us to reflect on the issue of anger, and he used a text from Rav Natan as a prompt: “Help me break my tendency towards anger. Help me practice patience in all aspects of my life and overcome my anger. I don’t want to be angry or respond harshly to anything . . . I just want to be able to serve you honestly and simply, and to have total trust in you.”

This is not my prayer to G-d. For me there is a distinction between the feeling of anger and acting angrily. I don’t want to do the latter. But I also don’t want to not be angry, when I generally feel that if you’re not angry about the world, you’re not paying attention. (Patience, on the other hand, that I pray for daily.) My anger, my outrage at injustice, is often what motivates me. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.

And if I’m being honest, I have to say that in the drama of the traditional Yom Kippur “scapegoat” sacrifice in the texts that we read, I feel less like the onlookers or even the high priest – and more like the goat. I feel the weighed down by the burden of our society’s sins against women. Like the goat, I am either abandoned in the wilderness – or thrown over a cliff.

So, how can I do the hard work of teshuva (“repentence”) when a great deal of my reflection has left me angry at G-d? Trust after betrayal is incredibly hard, especially when the betrayal “continue[s],” as Cohen notes.

Cohen’s answer is, at least in part, is for us to complete the stories about and to strain to hear the voices of the women of the Torah. We must write our own midrashim and live our own fully integrated lives. So, I’ll definitely try to get that done in the next 19 days.

Hebrew College founder Art Green, in his introduction to S.Y. Agnon’s seminal text on the High Holidays, Yamim Noraim, suggests another, or an additional, model: He notes that Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the second of the Ten Commandment tablets. (Moses destroyed the first in his anger at the Israelites’ creation of the golden calf.) Green says, “This time the tablets were to be a joint divine-human project. Moses does the carving, G-d does the writing. Every Jew receives or fashions these second tablets on or around Yom Kippur. This is the season when each of us renegotiates our covenant with G-d.”

If I can frame it like that, I’m able see G-d as a partner in the beginning of my teshuva. But it’s also a good thing that I have next year, too.

and hell followed with him

It’s time to play catch-up with my book reviews, even though I haven’t read as much as usual and these are not the most popular posts. But I like reflecting on and writing about what I’ve read. This summer I finished three books dealing with death and its pursuant hell: of war, of the criminal justice system, and of the otherworldly variety. It was not as gloomy a turn as it sounds. Plus, all three were fiction, which is unusual for me.

It started at the beginning of the summer with The Shining, my first Stephen King novel. A few days after moving to Boston, I joined the Brookline Public Library, a branch of which is just up the street from our apartment, and on a whim decided to pay homage to New England’s adopted son. I did this with not a little trepidation, since I generally can’t stomach anything in the horror genre. And it probably didn’t help that I read most of the book while at a remote Mexican resort during Tropical Storm Debbie, making leaving even the room, let alone the grounds, almost impossible. And, yes, the image to the left is indeed the cover art of the book I checked out: It probably should have been harder to scare me with visuals like those, but King is a master. The story has become such a part of popular culture — particularly because of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson — that even I was familiar with the plot, though I was surprised that some of the most iconic features of the story are from the film rather than the book. I won’t call it great literature, but King certainly knows how to write a page turner and a scary, suspenseful story: I couldn’t put it down, even would it would have been advisable to do so as I grew stir-crazy, trapped in a hotel of my own. Tortured writer Jack Torrance, his conflicted wife Wendy, and their clairvoyant son Danny all provide their perspectives on the events that occur when Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the haunted Overlook Hotel in Colorado, leading to their months’ long isolation with only the company of the ghosts of residents past. It’s hard not to want them all to make it out alive, which the survivors do only with the help of cook Dick Hallorann, an early occurrence of the unfortunate “Magical Negro” stock character. Overall I am glad I read it, if for nothing else than the fact that I now get the references to it (even if most of them are from the movie). I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my previous knowledge of the book had come from a Friends episode in which Joey and Rachel trade favorite books. “‘What’s so great about The Shining?'” Joey asks incredulously. “The question should be, ‘What is not great about The Shining?’ — and the answer is, ‘Nothing!'”

I next tackled Téa Obreht’s highly acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife, which was the only decent choice in the Cancún airport after I had disposed of The Shining. It was another page turner: I finished it on the return journey to Boston (which admittedly was made longer than it should have been by delayed flights). Despite its glowing reviews, I didn’t love it. And I should have! Obrecht has been compared to some of my favorite authors, including García Márquez, Hemingway, Bulgakov, and Dinesen. And the novel was quite a good story: A young doctor in a war-torn Balkan country, searching for answers in the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, turns to the magical stories he told in her childhood. His fanciful folklore is told against the backdrop of a country, based on Obrecht’s homeland of the former Yugoslavia, enveloped by a heartbreaking succession of wars. Maybe it was the crankiness of travel that intruded on my reading experience. Conceivably the narrator’s attempts to justify a character’s beating of his wife — she actually says, “Luka was a batterer, and here’s why.” — lost me. Or perhaps I found distracting the photo of the author, who looks all of 12. I realize these are not all good reasons; then again, I’ve disagreed with award bestowers before (see The Inheritance of Loss).

Finally, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, recommended as a summer beach read by one of my favorite blogs, CrimeDime. I’ve loved Atwood’s fiction in the past, and this one did not disappoint. Like the two above, it was also a quick read. Based on the true story of a 16-year-old Irish servant convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and lover in antebellum Canada, the book jumps between the young woman’s story and that of the physician she tells it to during her incarceration. Atwood also makes use of contemporary historical accounts as interstitials. The real Grace Marks was one of the world’s most notorious criminals at her trial in 1843. She and a fellow servant were convicted of murdering their employer; after receiving death sentences, the trial for the murder of the housekeeper was deemed unnecessary. Her accomplice was hanged while her sentence was commuted, mostly due to her age, and public opinion — as well as that of those closest to her — remained divided about whether she was femme fatale or naif. Readers will likely remain as confounded, as Marks claimed not to remember the murders and later gave at least three different versions of what happened at the time of the deaths. Atwood writes to give Marks the chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in her time to tell her story — but draws no conclusion. Trigger warning: Atwood brings to light the issues of gender and class (but only race incidentally) that permeate the 19th century, most of which seem to be sexual advances of powerful men towards vulnerable women. In Atwood’s imagining, Marks holds herself a victim, and thus, she relates, her stints in an asylum and a penitentiary constitute a special hell for her.

What were your enjoyable, light summer reads?

turning anger into change

Trigger warning: This entire post is about my experience as a volunteer for a rape crisis center, details from which may be upsetting to survivors.

In August 2005, shortly after I moved to D.C., I responded to an ad in the Washington Post Express, a call for volunteers at the DC Rape Crisis Center. That action has defined my experience in D.C. for the past six-a-half-years.

I still remember with total clarity my first visit to the Center’s then-basement office downtown — and my initial interview with then-volunteer assistant Jessica Ingram (who I recently reunited with in her current position as Assistant Director of Admissions at HUC-JIR!). I fumbled some of the questions that she asked me, but I must have said something right, because a few weeks later I began the twelve-week training to become a hotline counselor and hospital advocate. Those sessions took place at the Luther Place Memorial Church, one block from where I live now, where I’ll pack up to take my leave from D.C. in a few months. Talk about coming full circle . . .

During that training, I first learned about rape trauma syndrome, about inclusive language, about rape culture, about white privilege, about “isms” — all of which have had a profound influence on my intellectual development and worldview. I learned active listening skills, how to handle suicidal callers, and challenges specific to male and to deaf survivors. I learned how to talk to survivors’ loved ones. I learned to laugh on occasion in the face of horror — and why a sense of humor is one of the most important survival skills. I learned why we say “survivors.”

Since that training — over the course of at least 300 shifts — I’ve answered hundreds of hotline calls (and completed paperwork for each one), made dozens of hospital visits (and completed even more paperwork for each one of those), and ordered countless cabs for both volunteers and survivors (see above, re: paperwork). I’ve called every homeless shelter in the D.C.-area at least once, and I’ve spoken with emergency services in four states. I’ve seen almost 20 classes of volunteers graduate after me, and I’ve led training sessions for many of them. I’ve supported new volunteers as a “big vollie” and as a back-up supervisor during their hotline and advocacy shifts. I’ve served on the Center’s board, as volunteer liaison, for the past four years. I’ve seen eight amazing women lead the volunteer corps, with at least as many (no less amazing) volunteer program assistants. I’ve seen the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program run by four different women at two different hospitals. A thousand times I’ve said, “I believe you. You’re not crazy. You’re not alone.”

My first visit to the hospital, back when survivors were routed to Howard, was in 2006. I had completed my training months earlier but just hadn’t ever gotten called to the hospital on any of my advocacy shifts. When I got the call just after midnight, I was afraid — that I wouldn’t remember what to do, that I wouldn’t be of any help, that the survivor would see my fear. When it was over, I called my back-up to lament my inadequacy. But a month later, the volunteer office shared with me a thank-you letter that the survivor had written to the Center. The initial flush of pride turned to fear (again), and I expressed the concern, “I don’t know if I can do that well again.” And that’s when the wonderful Kim Lopez smiled and said to me, “But you’ll try.”

most valvable player; photo by salem pearce

I went on to win the “most valuable” volunteer award two years in a row. But I really, really don’t want this to seem like bragging. I am definitely proud of what I have done with the Center, but I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I just used the excellent training and support that the Center offered me. And it turns out that our society — not to mention the medical and legal systems that survivors must navigate — treat victims of sexual assault so badly that it doesn’t take much to seem practically like a ministering angel. In every encounter, I strove to meet survivors where they were and to treat them as what they were: human beings in pain.

I wish I could say that I remember every survivor I met in the hospital, but over the years the many faces and stories have run together. I’ve advocated for college students and for sex workers, for tourists and for homeless people. I’ve seen a survivor laughing and chatting with friends right before the exam — and I’ve seen a survivor beaten unrecognizable. I’ve had gifts pressed into my hands — and I’ve been told to “get the fuck out of my face.” I’ve helped a woman figure out how to keep an assault from her partner — and I’ve seen a man break down while trying to figure out how to tell his. I’ve seen survivors raped by lovers, family, friends, acquaintances, employers, caregivers, and strangers.

As might be expected, the work has taken its toll on me. On the hotline, I’ve been terrified by prank callers, worn out by repeat callers, cursed at by angry callers. A few years ago I suffered a bout of severe symptoms as a secondary survivor, as a result of exposure to so much trauma. I couldn’t hear or read anything related to sexual assault without being triggered. After a volunteering hiatus and numerous therapy sessions, the symptoms became less severe. And I’ve gotten much better at self-care, setting boundaries, and saying no.

Usually when I tell people that I volunteer at a rape crisis center, they assume the experience is thusly horrific. But — and this is why I decided to write this post — the experience was unquestionably and unbelievably rewarding. As I told my mom after I got that letter: I can die happy, since I know I have helped one person on this earth.

Even more, I found myself during training: I was unemployed when it started, and by the time it was over, I had my first job in D.C. Initially I wasn’t sure if I had the qualities to be a good volunteer, but the experience first showed me that I was capable of some measure of true selflessness and sympathy.

To be sure, I’ve seen possibly the worst thing one human being can do to another, but I’ve also seen the best thing one human being can do for another — in the form of the legions of (mostly) women willing to answer a phone or go to a hospital at any time of day for a total stranger. I’ve never stopped being amazed at my fellow volunteers. And some have become my closest friends or my (s)heroes: Mara Berman (who I met the first day of training!), Kim Shults, Edda Santiago, Ana Ottman, Mahri Irvine, Stacey Lantz, Chai Shenoy, Liz Nelson, Amy Gordon, Alicia Gill.

I can say with complete confidence that I’ve gotten more out of being a volunteer with the Center than I’ve given.

And yesterday, I asked to be removed from the active volunteer email list. More than anything else, this action has made real my upcoming move. I don’t know how to live in D.C. and not be a DCRCC volunteer; I’ve known the Center longer than I’ve known my husband.

But it’s time to go.

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