Hazlitt Magazine

Magic Can Be Normal

Why seek out examples of representation in art and culture for my kids as if their lives and identities depend on it? Because I’m convinced they might.

'Information is Always Currency': An Interview with Don Winslow

Talking with the author of The Force about the real origins of mass incarceration, levels of corruption in law enforcement, and the most difficult conversations he’s had with police officers.

The Picture of Health in Northeast Ohio

The Cleveland Indians are young and robust, but in a part of America increasingly known for stories about the ravages of opioids, not even baseball is quarantined from issues of health care.

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‘Information is Always Currency’: An Interview with Don Winslow

Talking with the author of The Force about the real origins of mass incarceration, levels of corruption in law enforcement, and the most difficult conversations he’s had with police officers.

Don Winslow hit a career peak, commercially and artistically, with 2015’s The Cartel. The Mexican drug wars, fueled by the American appetite for narcotics, with its city-and-village razing violence, killings both indiscriminate and calculated, radiates from its pages to a degree matched only by committed non-fiction accounts like Alfred Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico. Winslow has been careful to point to his debt to the journalists and on-the-ground writers in Mexico who made the profound research that went into The Cartel possible, even embedding heroic and extremely human journalists into the novel itself; Winslow didn’t risk death, while the men and women reporting cartel activities did.Accountability—more basically, more brutally, the idea of paying for what you write, do, steal, say—is a big part of Winslow’s work. The Force, Winslow’s latest novel, asks big questions about who pays for police corruption, who pays for police violence against African-Americans in urban cities, who pays for the handshake favours and agreements that keep civic political and criminal organizations doing business as usual.Born in New York and raised in Rhode Island, Winslow has spent much of his writing career in California, but the city where he was born, watched and read great crime thrillers, and finally became a private investigator, is where his The Force is set—where, maybe, it had to be set.Talking about cops, talking about right-now, talking about who’s dying—a corrupt-cop book in 2017 has to be personal, as well as excessively well-researched, if it’s going to be good. For Winslow, talking policing and making it personal means New York City. For Denny Malone, the book’s complexly corrupt elite cop hero, Manhattan North is an identity and a territory he has to protect even as he continually exploits the job for every illegitimate dollar he can safely gather—until he comes to understand that no level of caution can keep him completely safe.*Naben Ruthnum: Why do you start The Force with Denny Malone in prison and then backtrack?Don Winslow: That was a real internal debate for me. I argued with myself a lot about it; I originally didn’t write it that way. It’s the only book I’ve ever written with one person’s point of view. Even though it’s in the third person, it never leaves Malone through the whole book. I’ve never done a book like that before. It’s frankly easier to cut away—easier structurally—but I wanted the reader to be in this cage, in this dilemma, in this trap with Denny, right from moment one, and then just keep them there ’til the end.I didn’t want to write a “what happens” book, I wanted to write a “how did it happen” book.Denny talks about how being a cop where he works, in New York City, is part show-business—the mobsters in The Force grew up imitating movie gangsters, and the cop characters knowingly mock this. But who, onscreen, are your cops modeling themselves after? Who are they trying to be?Like anybody else in the culture, we all grew up with police on TV. That cultural life-imitates-art/art-imitates-life keeps flipping back and forth. Those guys [in The Force], they watched Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield—those classic TV series. And in a sense, that informed who they are, formed their public persona.Cops on the street definitely know that they have to give a performance. Sometimes it’s charm, sometimes it’s persuasion, sometimes it’s to calm people down—but other times it’s to jack people up, to intimidate. They definitely know that, to a certain extent, they’re actors.Denny Malone talks about Serpico—Frank Serpico himself, that is. [Officer Serpico reported institution-wide police corruption in late 1960’s New York, his honesty making him a pariah in much of the NYPD.] But that got me thinking, Malone and the other cops on his task force have probably seen Serpico, Prince of the City, Q & A—these classic cop films about corruption. Beyond those cop shows, are these corruption-focused movies part of their makeup, too?Absolutely. Those pieces that you mentioned were part of my inspiration for writing the book—I grew up on the movies you’re talking about. Part of what I was trying to do was write a story in that vein, but give it a contemporary setting and a contemporary feel. [Denny and the other cops] are very aware of those cultural icons—and they’re very aware of the history of police corruption in New York City.I presume that going into a lot of the interviews you did with cops for research—both the cops who were your friends and the ones you were just interviewing—they knew that you were writing a book about quote-unquote dirty, “bad” cops. I say quote-unquote because the morals in this book, like your others, aren’t cut-and-dry. How did this knowledge of what you were going to be writing about affect what they were willing to tell you?Well, that’s a very closed society. Know what I mean? Cops have a reflex which I absolutely understand, I can’t argue with it: to be defensive. You need to remember that that’s a world where information is currency. Whether it’s information they have about a case, about a suspect, about each other, about internal politics inside of a precinct house or inside the department, information is always currency. So, they have a reflexive habit of protecting. And then, when you start talking about things like corruption, that heightens the tension.But like any relationship, I don’t care if it’s a source, or a friendship, or a marriage, or a parent-child relationship: there’s no substitute for time. I’m never going to start an interview saying, “Hey, whaddya think about police corruption?” That’s a bad idea. I use the same sort of interview technique that I used as an investigator. I try to ask as few questions as possible, and I try to start them out as broadly as possible.I would typically, with someone I had recently met, say, “Tell me about being a cop.” When you start an interview that way, what you always get is what’s foremost on their minds. If you start an interview with your own questions, you’re already shaping the perception into something you already know.You walk a bit of tightrope, then—because, as you said, they’re not forthcoming interview subjects. You’re asking these broad questions, then you need to encourage these cops to elaborate at the right moment.I wouldn’t call it a tightrope. I’m not a journalist, I’m not doing an exposé, I’m not going to a grand jury. I’m a fiction writer, and they know that. They know that the characters are fictional—so I never felt it was any kind of a tightrope.Look, there are times I’d have to ask some tough questions. Corruption was not the toughest part: the toughest questions were asking about police shootings of young unarmed African-American men. Those are tough questions. Everyone knows that there’s corruption, historically, in big-city police departments. And most cops are pretty clear-eyed about that. They’re not naive. I add that most cops, of course, are clean.That’s an interesting aspect as well—because we’re focalized through Denny Malone’s viewpoint in The Force, a reader can emerge from the book with the idea that it’s near-impossible to be a clean cop and have an ambitious, rising career. But you’re saying that that’s not the case?That’s not universally the case. I know a lot of cops who’ve had heavy careers, high-ranking officers, who are absolutely squeaky clean. At the same time, the politics of any big city or even small-town police department are always going to require the exchange of favours. Now, sometimes those favours are perfectly legitimate—but they’re still favours. There is no free lunch. You get a favour from someone, you’re laying down a marker that will be picked up, trust me.There’s another kind of corruption—we have to distinguish. When you’re talking about police corruption, you’re talking about two separate issues. There’s financial corruption, which is pretty cut-and-dry: you take money or you don’t take money. You steal stuff from a crime site or you don’t. But the other kind of corruption, the type that’s related to getting your job done, which you alluded to in your question—there is a tremendous temptation, either for career reasons or for, believe it or not, ethical reasons, to cut corners, to lie on the stand, to do these sorts of evidentiary things to put someone away that you know either has or is going to hurt somebody.I’ve had cops tell me these stories. I had a cop tell me about going to a domestic disturbance, wanting to get that guy out of there and not doing it because he didn’t have a legal pretext to do it, and then having to go back to that same address six weeks later because of the homicide case, where the guy did kill his wife. That’s not an uncommon story.In a lot of these precincts, they know—believe it or not, it’s a small number—the 80 or 90 individuals who live there and who cause 85 percent of the crime. They know who they are—they’ve got their pictures up in the back room, where you can’t see. They know who these people are, and they know they’re going to hurt someone, they’re going to rob someone, they’re going to cause problems for the vast majority of people who live in these poorer precincts, who are just trying to get through their lives, raise their kids. There’s a great temptation for that second kind of corruption, to cut a corner, to lie about what you saw, so you have a pretext for bringing somebody in.When you said it’s a very small collection of individuals who drive 85 percent of the crime, I assumed you were talking about the drivers of organized crime—but you’re actually just talking about just people on the street who are carrying out crimes.OC—organized crime—is a different topic. [Cops] know the OC guys living in their precinct, but these guys are rarely committing crimes in your precinct. They live there, they might operate there, but the crimes are bigger things—and organized crime guys don’t defecate where they eat. If you want to get yourself killed, go ahead and sell dope on the block where the local OC guy lives. That can be a death sentence. But the OC guy has no problem selling dope two miles away.On this organized crime tip—you’re just off The Cartel, and I felt unsurprised to see The Force become, at least partially, a drug novel. Not because that’s “what you do,” but because a crime novel at a certain level, when you’re talking about institutions in America, has to become a drug novel, because that economy is embedded.Exactly. It’s difficult to write a novel about big-city policing, whether it’s New York or Chicago, or anywhere else, without writing about drugs. In 2016, it’s disingenuous to write that novel without writing about the heroin epidemic.I’d rather not have been writing about drugs, frankly—but that’s just what it is.You say the most difficult conversations you had were about race, about the shooting of young black men. Were you talking to people other than cops?I wanted to write about the race issue—if you’re going to write about a big-city police department in 2014-2016, when I was writing the novel, you have to write about race. You just do. It’s the reality of our times, and that’s going to be a sensitive and difficult subject on every level. Whether you’re talking to white cops or black cops or Hispanic cops, or people in the community, it’s a difficult subject.It’s America’s original sin. I often say the era of mass incarceration didn’t begin in 1993, it began in 1690: it was called slavery. And for at least two hundred years of our country’s history, the police were not used to enforce laws to protect black people: they were used to enforce laws to enslave black people.I know this is not your problem to solve, but can non-racist policing exist?I think it’s a matter of time. I think it’s a generational issue, and I think it will get better. When you talk to cops, more forward-thinking police, what they tell you is that this is a recruiting issue and a training issue. Some people shouldn’t be cops, because either they’re overt racists, or they have—as we all do—conscious or semi-conscious biases. We all come from the same society, so if you ask me are cops racist, I say yes—just no less and no more than the society from which they come. The difference is, with a cop with a gun, that unconscious bias can become lethal.Denny does a certain part of policing well, though he does cut corners, indulging in that second type of corruption you were talking about, taking shortcuts for reasons he believes to be ethical. Malone cares, deeply, about his community. That’s why I’m always putting quotes around “dirty cop” and “bad cop” here. Denny thinks he is trying to be a good cop, and he is succeeding in some ways.I think about character—I never think about good or bad, or anti-hero or those things. It’s not my job to make those judgments. My job is to bring people into a world that they otherwise couldn’t enter, and show them that world through those people’s eyes. So when I’m sitting down to type, I’m never making those judgments.Denny’s a complicated guy, but most human beings are. As a fiction writer, it’s not useful to label people—but when I’m not on the job, I might have my own opinions.
Magic Can Be Normal

Why seek out examples of representation in art and culture for my kids as if their lives and identities depend on it? Because I’m convinced they might.

I was nine or ten years old when I saw Twelfth Night—my first Shakespeare play—at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By then I knew what a protagonist looked like (white, thin, conventionally attractive), and I knew I was supposed to care most about the talented and golden-haired young woman playing both Viola and her twin brother Sebastian. But the actor playing Olivia happened to be Asian—the first Asian actor I had ever seen onstage, and one of precious few I’d noticed anywhere. Regal and beautiful in her long black dress, I watched her sweep across the stage with a sense of wonder and expanding, exciting possibility I didn’t yet know how to name.I like to refer to the OSF as “my hometown Shakespeare festival,” even though Ashland, Oregon is technically not my hometown, just near it, and when I was growing up my family could almost never afford tickets. Last year, when Julie Cortez in the OSF communications office connected with me via the sorcery of Twitter, I was already planning a summer visit home and seized her offer of complimentary tickets with a flurry of grateful exclamation points. Then I wondered: Should I take my kids to the theatre, too? My then-five-year-old was too young, I decided, and would fall asleep an hour into the play. But my eight-year-old was only a year or two younger than I had been when I was introduced to Shakespeare; she’d been reading chapter books since kindergarten; she could probably infer a great deal, even if she missed a lot of the dialogue.As I clicked through the season’s offerings online, I found myself reading with an eye toward which of the productions might be, if not kid-friendly, then at least kid-accessible. The image for The Winter’s Tale immediately caught my eye: Queen Hermione, half herself and half in marble, a statue blooming to life. This Hermione, I saw, was played by a Korean American actor named Amy Kim Waschke. The production, directed by Desdemona Chiang, was described as The Winter’s Tale “from an Asian and Asian American perspective,” and the cast featured Asian American artists in a majority of the lead roles.I felt sure my serious, bookish older child was enough like me to enjoy her first Shakespeare play. I talked with a friend back home who’d already seen the production; he assured me there was nothing in it an eight-year-old couldn’t handle. Maybe warn her about the bear? he suggested. My mother asked why I didn’t just take her to see Twelfth Night instead.Of course, I thought, I could do that; Twelfth Night is livelier, funnier, and there are no bears. At first blush, bringing an eight-year-old to one of William Shakespeare’s quirkier plays in an effort to help her see herself, an Asian American girl, in popular culture did seem a rather odd decision. But then I remembered the flash of delighted surprise I felt when I saw my first Olivia: the same surprise I felt, still feel, whenever I catch a glimpse of a fellow Asian in a place I did not expect.*Thanks to the books I read and the shows I watched as a kid, I was convinced that whiteness was practically a prerequisite for agency, adulation, protagonism in a story. Now that I’m a parent, I sometimes wonder if that’s what my kids will think, too, despite everything we tell them to the contrary. Sure, it’s a little better than it once was, but pop culture is still so lacking in the diversity—the reality—kids deserve. What and who does my daughter see reflected most often in the novels she devours? How often do my kids find themselves in the media they consume?Last year, when the hashtag #WhitewashedOut drew attention to controversial film casting decisions and the still-sorry (if slowly improving) state of Asian American representation in pop culture, I tweeted something about how I wanted better than this for my children. I’m an adult, after all; I can deal with a degree of invisibility—I’m used to it. But children need and deserve to feel important, to feel seen. My tweet, which truly seemed like the most innocuous, unassuming thing I could have contributed to the discussion, led to me blocking racist abuse for days and garnered me my first Twitter death threat.I get tired of thinking about this, tired of talking about it, tired of the rage I encounter when I do. Occasionally I give up on searching for new movies or shows for the kids, which is why we watch Moana and Big Hero 6 (still the only movie my children have ever seen that features a multiracial Asian kid like them) over and over and over. I keep a list of Asian American children’s book authors, and pester friends for recommendations—bonus points if the stories don’t all revolve around cultural conflict or racial trauma. I buy every book I can find with an Asian American girl protagonist. For all my effort, it still comes to probably less than one percent of what my kids read.Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that when I had the chance to take my daughter to see a company teeming with Asian American Shakespeareans, I grabbed it—even if it was “too weird” and “too old” for her; even if the original source material wasn’t written with her in mind at all. She didn’t know anything about the play, but she knew she would get to stay up very, very late, so of course she wanted to go. I bought her an abridged version of The Winter’s Tale written for children, dreamy fairy-tale illustrations filling every page, so she would go in with a basic grasp of the plot. She might not know Shakespeare yet, I thought, but she would—she’d be assigned his plays in school and see them performed onstage, on film. And now she would always be able to look back and recall that the first time she ever saw a Shakespearean play, many of the people bringing the story to life before her eyes were Asian American. Just like her.*Our seats were just eight or ten rows back in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre. My daughter and I dressed up for the play—she wore a new navy-blue dress with white polka dots—though it was southern Oregon and no one cared what we wore. I bought popcorn and cookies and bottled water from the concessions counter, and the two of us snapped selfies while waiting for the trumpet fanfare that would announce curtain time.The first time my daughter tugged my sleeve was when the girl playing Prince Mamillius (Naomi Nelson) appeared in the first scene; though my daughter knew the prince’s fate, she was still so excited to see this child actor around her own age, who actually resembled her a little, running around onstage in costume. She nudged me again when Paulina (played Miriam A. Laube) let loose, upbraiding King Leontes (Eric Steinberg) for allowing his jealousy to destroy his family—What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me? My daughter could tell it was an important scene, but couldn’t follow the dialogue. “She’s saying that he’s a big jerk,” I murmured. “Now she’s listing all the reasons why he’s a big jerk.”From the high drama of Leontes’s rage to the depths of his grief, we watched for the revelation of Perdita, her restoration to her family. I don’t go home often, so for me it was Perdita’s absence and her strange homecoming, accidental and unlooked-for, that resonated more than anything else. In our production, Perdita was played by a wonderful actor named Cindy Im, whose singing talents were on display during a Bohemian hoedown scene (this was likely the only production of The Winter’s Tale to ever feature a hoedown). Just as she did for Mamillius and for Hermione, my daughter perked up during all of Perdita’s speeches and songs. Later, she would tell me Perdita was her favorite.As we watched actors of three different generations portray mother, father, daughter, and little son, I tried to remember the last time I saw so many Asian American women in a single work. After a while, though, I realized I was focusing less and less on the fact that they were Asian. It wasn’t that I stopped noticing or caring. But after the initial surprise wears off, seeing so many Asian American actors at once becomes utterly unexceptional. They simply are their characters, as all skilled actors are when performing; their presence makes a perfect kind of sense. As we watched not one but so many Asian American artists command the stage, feuding and scheming and falling in love as great characters do, it made me wonder why something so easy has to be so rare.Stars shone high above the stage by the time the company took their bows. My sleepy child told me that she didn’t believe Hermione was alive all along, in hiding and pretending to be a statue. She thought the queen had died, and then been revived by magic. “You said this story was kind of like a fairy tale,” she said, “and in fairy tales, magic isn’t strange at all. It’s just normal.”*“I feel there are two distinct parts of myself, an American me and a Chinese me,” says Desdemona Chiang, who directed the production of The Winter’s Tale my daughter and I saw at OSF. She was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. at age three, and describes her upbringing in southern California as “a classic hyphenated experience.” “When I was thinking about The Winter’s Tale, I kept thinking about these two places, Sicilia and Bohemia, how the play is really about dual cultures, polarity—cold and warm, kings and peasants,” she tells me. “I thought, what if we add East and West?”In the production, Bohemia is a multicultural New World immigrant utopia, and Sicilia is “a kind of Asian Pangaea” represented by a diverse group of Asian American artists. “When you cast an all-white cast, you’re casting a racially specific show, too—we just don’t think of it that way because we’ve normalized whiteness in this country,” Chiang says. “With race-conscious casting, like we had, we’re not ignoring race. We had all these different aspects of Asianness in the company: a Korean Hermione, Korean and Filipino lords, a South Asian Paulina. So Asian American identity, the nuances of diaspora and migration—all of these topics were part of the conversation with the company from the beginning.”It was important to Chiang to have a predominantly Asian American creative/design team as well, including dramaturg Gina Pisasale and costume designer Helen Q. Huang. “Representation is about the bodies on the stage, yes, but who makes the choices about what plays to produce in the first place? Who’s directing, who’s designing the sets and costumes, who’s doing the casting?” For Pisasale, it was the first time she had been in a room with so many Asian theatre artists. “The joy in the rehearsal room was real,” she says. “Beyond telling the story, many of us were also thinking about our own relationship to our history and our Asianness and how to bring those things into this production.”When I tell Chiang how thrilled my daughter was to see Perdita and Mamillius, she says she had a similar experience attending a high school production of Twelve Angry Men. “It was Twelve Angry Jurors,” she explains, “because there were also girls in the company. The lead juror was a young Asian woman. And I had this amazing moment: ‘oh my god, someone who looks like me is playing this important character onstage.’”Chiang and Pisasale highlight the importance of supporting Asian American creators and playwrights and ensuring their works are part of the theatre ecosystem. Yet as Pisasale points out, presenting an iconic work of Shakespeare’s from an Asian and Asian American perspective can help poke holes in the very idea of “the Western canon” and what it means—and that such interrogation is a good, even necessary thing. “Making these bodies visible onstage is a huge political and artistic step forward,” she says. “What I always think, and what I think about even more since the election, is the larger global and national and local context for what we see onstage. When you’re asked to bring your full self to an artistic collaboration, instead of only the Asian part or only the artist part—there’s something liberating in that. From the audience perspective, it’s important because of possibility: This wasn’t possible before, and now it is, and we go from here. Your daughter’s experience is why it’s important.”*There are so many different types of inheritances; one I still hope my children can somehow sidestep is the void, the frustration of desperately searching for yourself, or people like you, in a cultural landscape that does not seem to be for you. And what does it say about you, about your worth and your importance and the possibilities open to you, if you can’t find yourself at all? Something I think about, often, as I watch my multiracial Asian American kids growing up in Trump’s America: There are millions of racist people in this country; millions of reasons for them to want to be white. Against the current political backdrop, my kids are already observing, acquiring so many products doled out by Hollywood, book publishers, the media—products full of insidious and unsubtle messages about what and who is most important, desirable, praiseworthy. My older daughter is well aware of precisely who this administration stacked with grade-school bullies views as worthwhile, “real Americans.”I worry a little more these days because my children aren’t white; I also worry because one day, regardless, they could still attempt to seek the privilege and safety of whiteness—or as much of it as the white people around them will allow. It’s not a choice I’d ever want them to make. But I would not have to ask why they made it.I don’t know if my urgent attempts to find them the stories and examples I never had—even if there still aren’t enough of them—will make any kind of difference at all as they grow and learn who they are and where they belong. I don’t know how much I can help them feel important, seen as they are, without limitation or a care for other people’s biases. But I know I will continue to seek out these examples of representation for them as if their lives and identities depend upon it, because I’m convinced they might.I’m still glad that, from now on, when my daughter thinks of Shakespeare, she’ll be able to imagine Asian American players. I will always remember the Olivia I watched, years ago, in such thrall; what it meant to see someone who looked a little like me sweep across the stage wearing a gorgeous costume, speaking beautiful words I barely understood, on her way to securing her love and her due. As my bibliophile daughters grow up, as they go on their own pagebound adventures, I want them to believe that these works of art and imagination belong to them as much as anyone else. I want them to be able to envision stage after stage, world after world of people they, too, can become.
The Picture of Health in Northeast Ohio

The Cleveland Indians are young and robust, but in a part of America increasingly known for stories about the ravages of opioids, not even baseball is quarantined from issues of health care.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball.On the day before the All-Star break, the Cleveland Indians played their first Sunday night home game in eight years, and under very different circumstances than the previous one. The Tribe of 2009 was on its way to losing nearly 100 games; the 2017 Indians are defending a pennant after an agonizingly close World Series, their first since 1997. They improved more than the Cubs in the offseason, too, adding Blue Jays tater-specialist Edwin Encarnación to a lineup that lacked only for power. And after a 28-29 start, Cleveland finally clicked into gear over the last month. They entered the Sunday game at 47-39, good enough for a 2.5-game lead in the AL Central, and were set to send three starters and two reserves to Miami’s All-Star field of dreams, a tie for most of any team.O Cleveland! The news gets better. Other than season-ending elbow surgery for pitcher Cody Anderson, the Indians have been lucky, injury-wise. They are what every baseball team—indeed, every human being—wants to be: young and healthy. Take it from star second baseman Jason Kipnis, who told the Player’s Tribune that he emotionally recovered during the offseason by remembering, “It’d be one thing to lose a World Series like that with a team of mostly older guys or players who were about to become free agents… But it’s different when you’re a younger team, or when you’re actually in the process of adding pieces for future seasons.”During that Sunday-night game, Jim Rosenhaus, lead broadcaster for the Cleveland Clinic Indians Radio Network, agreed: the future is bright. Rosenhaus spent long stretches of the early innings admiring the team’s collective youth and the strength of their farm system. In his perfectly calibrated baseball-man timbre, Rosenhaus assured his listeners: “Lots of reasons to feel optimistic in Northeast Ohio.”That must be a relief to hear, since Northeast Ohio, the purplest region of the country’s most crucial swing state, is more often embroiled in one political argument or another. Cleveland and environs have been held up as the capital of Rust Belt decline for decades now, leading to outsize commentary on every factory closing. And increasingly, the region is best known as the setting for nightmarish reportage about the ravages of opioids. According to the Plain-Dealer, “this year, 860 overdose cases are predicted in [Cuyahoga] county,” where Cleveland is the county seat, “a 152 percent increase since 2013 and up from roughly 600 cases last year.” Mother Jones reports that in Ashtabula County, about 50 miles east on Lake Erie, “the number of children in court custody quadrupled from 69 in 2014 to 279 last year,” largely from parental overdoses and rehab stints.Almost exactly a year ago, Donald Trump told a Columbus audience that he felt their pain. “I’m going to stop it,” he said of the opioid crisis, “We’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.” I doubt he’s read the health care bill that colloquially bears his name, but the first Senate version of Trumpcare infamously cut almost $800 billion from Medicaid, which treats about 30 percent of the country’s addicts and provides health insurance to about one-fifth of Ohioans. Medicaid also supplies about half of the state’s prescriptions of buprenorphine, commonly used to treat opioid addiction. Senator Rob Portman was skeptical of that bill out of concern for its effects on people with opioid addictions in his state, but Mitch McConnell appears to have wooed him with some dedicated, if insufficient, funding for the issue in the newest version. For suckered Trump voters in Northeast Ohio, it’s apparently all too true that “nothing is given.”Residents of the Forest City haven’t taken this in stride. Protesters have swarmed all of Portman’s offices throughout the state, including the one in Cleveland, and one advocacy group, UltraViolet, even got a plane to fly over an Indians game in June, trailing a banner that warned: “SENATOR PORTMAN: TRUMPCARE HURTS WOMEN.”The Indians, as one would expect, haven’t touched this topic; what sports team could? And fun as they are to watch on the field, the Indians aren’t the overtly lovable or personality-driven kind of great team. Their players aren’t known for big statements or flashy wardrobe choices. The franchise stud is comically stoic ace Cory Kluber, whose face is so inexpressive he could pass for a Guardian of Traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge.But nothing, not even baseball, is fully quarantined from health care in this part of Ohio. Recall that Jim Rosenhaus’s employer is sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, one of the premier medical facilities in the world and one of the city’s main economic engines. With annual gross revenue of $9.14 billion and recent expansions to Florida, Toronto, and Abu Dhabi, the Cleveland Clinic is arguably the best-known ambassador for the city’s name besides LeBron James. Their success is so great that Trump invited CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove, who presided over the international expansions and boosted the Clinic’s revenue, to join a business council that also includes Jamie Dimon and Disney chief Bob Iger.Cosgrove has been publicly critical of this year’s GOP efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, though he has delicately avoided full-throated endorsement of the ACA as well. His association with the president has drawn widespread rebuke, especially after one of his own doctors was prevented from reentering the country as a result of the Muslim ban. Cosgrove announced in May that he is stepping down from his role at the Clinic, though he will remain an advisor to Trump. He leaves behind a business that is monumentally wealthy and growing, serving a community whose efforts to fight an epidemic are being endangered by men who will never lack for medical care in their lives.*At that Sunday night game, the Indians were missing one crucial part of their personnel. Manager Terry Francona was recovering from a coronary ablation to correct an irregular heartbeat. The procedure was performed (where else?) at the Cleveland Clinic, and though everything went as planned, he stayed at home through the All-Star Game to recover.Francona is a delight, one of the most colorful and respected managers in the game. He’s also celebrated for his famously unhealthy appetites, from a daily mouthful of tobacco that has claimed at least one of his dental crowns to a propensity for late-night sugar binges that would shame a stoned OU freshman. There’s no reason to think that this recent heart problem resulted from his room-service habits, but Francona treats his teeth and stomach with a jolly abandon that only a rich man can manage.In a rightfully renowned essay on the relationship between poverty and dental health, Kansas writer Sarah Smarsh notes that nearly half the U.S. population lives without dental insurance, and those that have it usually forego treatments anyway because of high premiums. In the course of her own working-class childhood, she was warned to brush every day and never eat candy. “My family’s distress over our teeth—what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake,” she writes, “reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition… Often, bad teeth are blamed solely on the habits and choices of their owners, and for the poor therein lies an undue shaming.”“Privileged America, ever striving for organic purity,” Smarsh continues, “judges harshly the mouths that chew orange Doritos, drink yellow Mountain Dew, breathe with a sawdust rattle, carry a lower lip’s worth of brown chaw, use dirty words and bad grammar.” I’d only add: unless those mouths are in a major league dugout. Fewer players may dip these days, and MLB has caught on to the training benefits of dietary nutrition, but baseball has always been a sport that celebrates regular-guyness and even unhealthiness. Years of steady sunflower seed and chewing gum consumption—not to mention daily Gatorade intake—would seem ill-advised for people in any other line of work, especially anyone without the money for a dentist. Certainly there are many people who listen to the Cleveland Clinic Indians Radio Network who couldn’t afford to be treated there. Certainly there are listeners who don’t have the security to gobble ice cream and Skoal with impunity. Bad habits aren’t cute affectations when the consequences might bankrupt you or worse.Whatever their coverage level, anyone listening on Sunday night heard Kluber pitch a disappointing game, walking three Detroit Tigers in only five innings while ending his streak of ten-strikeout starts. For the second game in a row, his offense fizzled behind him, and eventually the team took their fortieth loss, 5-3. A disappointment, but no matter. The Indians have something no single setback can erase, something enviable and rare, especially in Northeast Ohio: optimism for their long-term health.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
‘Here Lies a Bitch Who Loved Convenience’: An Interview with Samantha Irby

The author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life on being a New York Times Best Seller, ordering off the dollar menu, and pickling. 

The fallacy about reading a (great) collection of personal essays is that you think you actually know the person who wrote them in an intimate way. In reality, what you have is a sense of someone, a few good stories and a narrative the writer is choosing to present. Even still, when I met Samantha Irby, author of the New York Times best-selling We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, a few weeks ago in Chicago, I did somehow feel like I knew her. Maybe that’s because her second essay collection is filled with stories both embarrassing and sweet: anecdotes about dating men who treated her like shit, her father’s physical abuse, and perhaps her best work, pooping her pants inside some dude’s car while in college.But even if you don’t know Irby from her books, you might know her from her popular blog bitches gotta eat, where she writes in lowercase only, “if the hotdog-scented thigh meat wafting up from the sun-dappled sidewalks of my fair city are any indication, SUMMERTIME IS FINALLY UPON US.” And in addition to two books, a prolific blog, and the only good Facebook page known to man, FX is developing her first book Meaty into a half-hour series with Jessi Klein and Abbi Jacobson.She’s busy, but she did, somehow, find time to let me bother her with some questions.*Scaachi Koul: SAM. HI. It’s me, Scaachi. Do you remember me?Samantha Irby: Kind of...? I mean, I think so? You're the one with the glasses, right?Sufficient memory. The last time I saw you, I bought a copy of your first book, Meaty, and you told me not to because you said—and I think I am recalling this correctly—it is garbage. It sounds like you don’t feel too hot about your first book. Why? I always hate everything I write as soon as it's finished, especially once it's published and there's no chance to go back and fix it, make it better. I am also very uncomfortable looking back at older versions of myself. Everything embarrasses me, all the time. And there's never a moment that I can look at something I've written without thinking, "That could be funnier. You could have used this word instead of that one. How could anyone have ever published this."I have an amazing opportunity, though: Vintage just bought Meaty and they're gonna let me make a few changes to it and rerelease it in the spring. I'm sure the minute it's published I'll be like, "UGH STILL TRASH WTF," but for now I'm feeling hopeful about it. I'll send you a copy with a note that says "less garbage-y than before."Okay, thank you, that would be an honour to receive. Your second book, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, hit the New York Times Best Seller list! I remember reading an interview with a bunch of stand-ups who talked about going on late night television, thinking it would change their lives, but the next day they just went back to normal. Has getting on the list changed your life in any tangible—or intangible—ways? Do you feel very powerful now?It hasn't changed my life in the least bit. Wait, let me rewind—my agents and editors are really happy? And among a very small group of artists and writers, I've achieved some kind of brag-worthy accomplishment? But, like, the barista at the coffee shop isn't screaming, "CLEAR A PATH FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR" when I walk in. As a matter of fact, that dude is like, "Yo, is your card actually gonna go through today?" Because the realest deal is that this isn't the kind of distinction that comes with a cheque. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna make a T-shirt that says, "New York Times Best Seller ordering off the Dollar Menu." Or, "New York Times Best Seller and just negotiated for a cheaper cable TV package."As for my newfound power? Let's talk after we see what sort of ridiculous shit I can insert into my next book contract. I don't even give a shit about the money. Let's see if I can work "Do a tour of my friend's houses" in there.Okay, this is the most important question of this entire interview: why do you like writing about poop so much?I wish I didn't have to. But having IBD [Inflammatory Bowel Disease], for me, is like carrying an obnoxious toddler around with me all day, every day. "Is it too hot for little IBD? Is IBD gonna give me a problem sitting through this three-hour movie? What can I do to settle IBD down during this flight? Don't eat that near IBD, she's allergic!!" It's exhausting to spend so much time thinking about my guts, trying to anticipate what's going to set it off and ruin my life for an afternoon. I'm always thinking about what the bathroom is gonna be like, or how many hours the road trip is gonna take, or what new food might have a previously unknown trigger. But I always want my writing to be useful, and if I didn't get emails from women with Crohn's thanking me for my candor or women showing up to my readings crying because they can read about someone else's struggle with not being able to just, like, spontaneously dine, I wouldn't do it. Even though there are now commercials for diarrhea medicine on during the evening news there's still a huge stigma around the #2, it's still awkward to announce to someone you want to have sex with later that you've gotta take a shit in the middle of a date, and if my talking about it helps free some women even a little bit from the shame surrounded a perfectly natural function, then I'm gonna keep doing it.What’s the worst question you keep getting on your book tour? Is it this one?No, this is the best one, duh. The worst are probably questions about my wife's kids, because I have to keep giving the same non-answer that says “I'M NOT GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS” without being quite so blunt. I never want to make anyone feel bad and I understand the fascination with my life, so I always jokingly dance around it, but yeah—if no one would ever refer to me as a "parent" ever again that would be great.Well, forgive me, but speaking of your life, how long have you been in Kalamazoo? Do you like it? I know you used to live in Chicago so I am having trouble imagining you doing stuff in Kalamazoo. I feel like there’s a lot of fruit picking involved.My wife picks a lot of fruit but that shit feels too much like slavery to me so no thank you! So I'm from Evanston, a suburb of Chicago where John Cusack is also from, and Kalamazoo and Evanston are super similar: lots of natural food stores and well-meaning whites. So I don't really feel like a fish out of water because I already knew what teff was before I moved here a year ago.This sounds so stupid and I keep saying it, but the biggest adjustment is not having things available to me at all hours of the day. I mean, if you were hungry at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday in Chicago, I could tell you where to get food from. Good food, too, not just some lukewarm trash from a gas station. That's just not a thing here. If you want something, you have to get in your car and go get it, during business hours, and probably not on a Sunday.A few months before I left Chicago, my beloved television shorted out and because I can't spend even a minute without a television in my home, I Amazon Primed a new one that was delivered within two hours. This is exactly what the fuck technology is for! I'm not scared of the future if it means on-demand electronics delivery! But that is not my life now, now my life is figuring out which farmer has the best carrots for this pickling project I'd like to start. And I don't hate it as much as I expected to, at least not until I go to a city where bike messengers will deliver doughnuts in the middle of the night and there's an Apple store. My tombstone is gonna say, "Here Lies a Bitch Who Loved Convenience."I am very, very impressed that you’ve maintained your blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, while writing your book(s), and while doing a book tour. Is there something about blogging in particular that keeps you coming back to it? I feel like I’ve bailed on so many of my blogs but yours has this amazing velocity to it that you don’t see often, and certainly not while creating other work at the same time.You know what's hilarious? If I don't blog for a long time, which I feel like I haven't because I'm busy saving my best material for interviews like this one, people will tweet or email me like, "What's up bruh, are you ever gonna blog again?" And my kneejerk reaction is, "WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT I JUST WROTE A DAMN BOOK." I don't even have ads on my blog! Like, it's a free thing that's actually free that makes me zero money! There are eight years' worth of archives! Reread that old shit!!But I don't take anyone's support or interest for granted. I’m also the kind of person who immediately feels ashamed and like the biggest letdown human, so then I scrounge up something to write about while apologizing profusely and vowing to do better in the future. I feel like the last person on the planet with a blog, me and The Bloggess, but I don't know when I can end it. Especially since, and tell me if you feel the same way, I know that I have a product to sell? And even though it's gross and I don't really do it a lot, I need to at least maintain this outlet to peddle my wares? How do people who write books sell books now? I'm not doing videos or Snapchatting or whatever, so I guess until I'm done writing books I gotta dredge up shit for this blog? But not the super good shit, because I need to save that for a book?! The real answer is that I hope I just drop dead in the next couple years so I don't have to ever hear the words "branding" or "sales" ever again.At least we have your tombstone sorted out. When we last saw each other, we talked about our shared affection for makeup artists on YouTube. How did you get into beauty vloggers? Who do you think is the best and the worst? (Manny MUA is the worst, by the way.)MANNY MUA IS MY FAVORITE, SHUT YOUR IMMACULATELY LIPSTICKED MOUTH.I had no idea they were even a thing until a couple years ago when my friend Stephanie, who is the kind of beautiful creature who does a razor sharp winged eyeliner just to go to the grocery store, casually asked, "Have you ever heard of Jaclyn Hill?" And I hadn't, but I'm very, very into activities you can participate in alone in the dark in the comfort of your own home, so I watched some cut crease eyeshadow tutorial later that day and I was hooked. I watched almost every one of her videos, then I started watching Manny (shut up) and Jackie Aina and Nicole Guerrero and Jordan Hanz and Patrick Starrr, and basically these people are a regular part of my life now.I'm not sure I can really articulate their appeal to me, but I think it's equal parts straight up awe at the skill and artistry, the soothing effect of listening to funny, beautiful people with nice voices talking about camouflaging undereye circles, and the belief that I too could look this amazing if I just applied myself. Oh and also had the patience to properly blend a cream cheek contour. I love makeup but I've never figured out my right shades or whatever, and let's be honest, where do I even go that would require a brow bone highlight!? Beauty vloggers are my house flippers. There is no worst one, especially not Manny how even dare you, but my absolute favorite is Patrick. He looks like an exquisite painting.Something I really loved about your book that I haven’t seen done this successfully is that each essay feels like a brief, wonderful chat with someone you really like spending time with. I feel like that kind of writing requires a tremendous amount of restraint. Was it intentional that you wanted to keep the essays short? Did you aim to have them feel almost conversational?Okay, so, here we go again, but my approach is always to make my essays poop length. For a couple reasons: one, it's just practical. I understand that between Instagramming cute dinners and bleeding the planet's resources dry, people don't have a lot of time to devote to sitting down with whatever musings I have about my butthole, but everybody poops and most people like to keep a book handy for the toilet, and six or seven pages is just enough time to be entertained while getting your business done without worrying about your butt falling asleep. Same goes for a subway commute or keeping it on your bedside table—I know I've got a handful of pages in me before I pass out on top of the book, creasing it into oblivion, and I assume other people are like that, too?But, two, I sometimes feel like I am not smart enough to not lose my way when my pieces get too long. I'm good at rambling and taking a circuitous route to get to the point, and the more words there are, the more meandering I do. That's no good.Let’s end this with my favourite question to ask other writers: what’s your least favourite book?I really hate saying this because I read in an article that Barack Obama loved it and it was his favorite book of whatever year it came out but, goddamn, Fates and Furies really baffled me. I'm pretty sure it won a National Book Award—I could Google but I refuse11Editor's note: It was a finalist. Also, it was very good.—and I wanted to love it because so many smart and interesting people said they loved it but the entire time I was reading it I was like, WHY. I'm sure it's brilliant and that I'm actually too stupid to understand why but as soon as I finished it, I displayed it prominently on my shelf (I need to feel like people are impressed by my choices) and vowed to never touch it ever again.
My ‘Just In Case’ Inheritance

When I learned that the jewelry my family had given me over the years was a morbid kind of safety net, I came to dread my future every time I put on a piece of gold. 

India is the largest consumer of gold in the world. It works as the counterweight against the constant rise and fall of the rupee. Gold is a major cultural and social cornerstone: We wear gold to weddings and poojas, we give gold as gifts for newborn babies and newlyweds. When Indian businessman Datta Phuge wanted to show off his wealth he did it by ordering a custom gold shirt, worth 12.7 million rupees, or $240,000. It held 7.3 pounds of 22 karat gold and contained 14,000 faceted pieces. Three years after he made headlines for his shirt, he was beaten to death by 12 men over a money dispute. If the country’s love of gold is on one side and its poverty is on the other, violence is the cruel spectre flipping the coin.Gold is my family’s favorite gift to give. When my mom was pregnant with me, aunts and grandmothers would send her gold coins via friends visiting America. Every year on my birthday, I’d receive a custom charm or heirloom bangle. All gold. It didn’t take long to amass a small treasure trove. Tiny gold statuettes of deities strung along delicate chains, a series of pendants twisted into the shape of an om. Gold earring studs with diamonds I’d never be old enough to wear. Rings wrought for baby fingers.In the decade between the ages of 4 and 14, the last thing a girl wants is solid gold jewelry from the Motherland. Little girls want the new mermaid Barbie doll whose hair changes color in water, or they want that Harry Potter book the library never has, or they want pink plastic jewelry that goes with everything. They don’t want a pair of gold dolphin-shaped earrings which will be whisked out of their hands and put “in a safe place” as soon as Kavita Massi is done waiting for a reaction.This jewelry was always out of bounds—I only ever saw it when someone was getting married. These pieces felt more like a gift for my mom than me. Sometimes she even wore the earrings to parties, fuelling my conspiracy theories that this was all a racket for the older women in my family. I had to wait till I had all the spitting venom of a teenager before I asked her when I’d get to keep the jewelry myself, and why everyone insisted on giving me heavy gold pieces that were at least 30 years out of fashion.“It’s for your dowry,” she said, with all the succinctness of a woman practiced in dealing with teenagers.“My dowry?” I spat. “What do you mean my dowry?”*In 1961, India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act. It made demanding or giving a gift “as a consideration for the marriage” illegal. You couldn’t buy or sell women, the government decided. But whatever they said on high, what happened in the village between families could never be so easily codified—you cannot simply say “no more” to tradition.While women are handed over along with new TVs, gold watches, and cash, they also continue to die in the mad rush for dowry payouts. The Indian National Crime Records Bureau determined a woman was killed every hour in 2012 because of dowries. These “dowry deaths,” as the media called them, happen when the groom shakes the bride’s family down for more money. Or, grooms simply kill off their brides to marry again and receive a new dowry.At 13, I knew dowries were illegal and dangerous. In my pre-teen mind they were synonymous with death. They were the epitome of sexist injustice. So when my mother mentioned my dowry, a chill snaked down my back and made my hair stand on end. I was raised thoroughly American, I was not a statistic from the Subcontinent.“What do you mean dowry, mom?” I repeated, because she had gotten distracted chopping vegetables for dinner.“I mean, your Nani and Dadi are giving you jewelry to keep in your dowry,” she said, referring to my maternal and paternal grandmothers. “When you get married, you’ll take it all with you to your new house. This way, the jewelry remains yours. And,” she said, sliding a cutting board full of carrots into the frying pan, “if something bad happens, you can sell the jewelry to take care of yourself.”*My dad’s dad, my grandfather, brought his young family to America after receiving a placement at Texas A&M University. He and his skills were being imported from India to work in the growing fuel industry. It was the early 1970s, Asian immigrants were being given permission, for the first time in decades, to make a home in America. Everything was about to fall into place.Only it didn’t. Instead of living in the lap of promised luxury, my dad and his siblings grew up in Houston’s working class neighbourhoods. They knew few Indians besides themselves, so they acclimated and assimilated to those that assimilated before them.By the time my parents were married and I was born in the early 1990s, my dad’s family had reached a sort of equilibrium—they operated a video rental store that brought in some money. My grandmother probably spent the most time out of all of them in that store, talking to customers and stocking shelves. It was there that she saw her first nameplate necklace on a Mexican woman who had walked into the shop. Her gold pendant, with its dainty heart and etched face, seemed so delicate and charming to my grandmother. So she got one made at the local Indian jewelry store with my name. It was one of the first pieces added to my dowry.I asked my grandmother why she gave gold so freely to her granddaughters, even when she didn’t have much money herself. “It’s for security,” she said. “It’s just what Indian people do.” I pressed her. Did she grow up hearing horror stories about women ending up in bad marriages and needing this sort of security? No, she replied, but this is just in case.I was raised with a fear of men, strange and familiar. “Never be alone with a man,” my mother had been telling me since I was small, “unless I tell you it’s okay.” Stranger danger was always a concern for my young parents, who were still going to school when I was born and had to work all day when I was an infant. We would practice how to avoid being pulled into cars and the right questions to ask men who said things like “I lost my puppy, can you help me find him?” or “I’m a friend of your parents, they sent me to pick you up from school.” Law & Order: SVU was often playing in the background in the evenings, and my parents would use its storylines to ask me and my brother questions about dangerous encounters we might have had. At a certain point, talking about abuse like this stops becoming an issue of “if” and becomes a “when.”When I learned that all the gifts I’d been given over the years had a morbid intention, it felt more than ever that it was only a matter of time before I’d be harmed or worse by a man. In this case he’d be my husband, not a stranger. Confronting the fact that my family was preparing me for the worst meant thinking about this very possible, very real future every time I put on a piece of gold. I’d be getting dressed for my favorite cousin’s wedding and thinking about how my own might be the worst mistake of my life.*The culture of women in my community is double-edged: there is a lot of talking behind hands, pursing of lips, public shaming for unmarried or never-pregnant members, but there are also unspoken laws of protection.We don’t always call feminism by its name, but it’s still there on the outer edges of what’s expected of us. Sometimes feminism feels completely absent from a situation, as if we all forget that we too are women when we demand tea be served and good appearances be maintained. But we still err towards protecting each other.As the Pakistani-British feminist thinker Sara Ahmed writes in her essay "Feminist Aunties," feminism is not an inherently Western concept. “It might be assumed that feminism travels from the West to East. It might be assumed that feminism is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a travelling assumption, one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated; a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift,” she says. She talks about how her aunt Gulzar lived and taught feminism within the confines of Pakistani culture. Even when marriage was the norm, Gulzar side-stepped the expectation. She spoke confidently when she wasn’t expected to. And she owned herself. It was Gulzar’s inexplicit feminism that was handed down to Ahmed. Feminism didn’t come in a textbook.For my grandmothers, giving me gold as an investment in my future safety was their feminism. This is how they maintained a matriarchy in a strongly patriarchal world.My grandmother on my dad’s side didn’t have a dowry. Her father and his friend, my grandfather’s father, set up the match and got them married in the space of a few months. My dad calls it a “one rupee wedding,” meaning everyone was broke and it was done quickly and cheaply. When she gives me gifts, like the shell she brought back from Aruba or the table runner from Hyderabad, I think about how my dad and his siblings were on welfare during their early years in this country. She went from having nothing to making sure I had something, if I needed it.I have a dowry and a small fortune of personal wealth because women before me didn’t. My teenage rage over having a dowry has settled into a sort of ambivalent quiet. Most of the pieces live with my mom in a series of scattered safety deposit boxes, but there are two that I do keep with me. A pair of gold hoops—baliyon—that my mother bought me, and that gold nameplate from my grandmother. Putting on my baliyon and nameplate are consistent acts of validation. They pull together a lineage of women who are scattered across the world by preference and politics. They remind me that strength is imbued in everything.I hope there never comes a day when I’ll need to dip into my gold savings, but I can’t deny that it’s comforting to know that it’s there, just in case.
‘Heartbreak is Pedestrian, Even Though It Feels Profound’: An Interview with Mandy Len Catron

The author of How to Fall in Love with Anyone on Master of None, the need for more diverse love stories and being skeptical of gut feelings.

In January 2015, Mandy Len Catron wrote an essay for the New York Times about falling in love with an acquaintance using a 20-year-old psychology experiment. Participants answer 36 personal questions and then stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Or at least that’s the short version of the story that went viral. By the end of 2015, it was one of the NYT’s most read stories of the year. Catron’s love life became public knowledge, with strangers nosily inquiring if she and the man she’d written about were still together, if they’re going to get married and have kids. Catron understands why people ask for the simplified account—people want neat and tidy romantic fables where love plays out in predictable ways. The longer version of the story, which Catron details in her debut book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone, actually happens over the course of a few years and is much more complicated than she had word count to outline in the original piece.  Told through a series of personal essays, Catron explores her own perceptions of love and how they were shaped by her childhood in Appalachian Virginia, her parents’ divorce, the ending of a 10-year relationship with her college boyfriend, and witnessing her own love story go viral. She supplements these introspective musings with references to scientific studies, academic papers and romantic comedies to investigate how societal norms and pop culture affect our views of love.Catron teaches English and creative writing at the University of British Columbia, is the author of Mixed Feelings, a new column at The Rumpus where she doles out evidence-based relationship advice, and continues to dissect love on her own blog, The Love Story Project. Samantha Edwards: What’s your first, favourite love story you remember from your childhood? Mandy Len Catron: When I was young, there were probably several examples because I was super into love stories as a child. I really loved the movie Sleeping Beauty. I watched all the Disney princess movies like everyone else did. So it’s either Sleeping Beauty or my parents’ love story, which I remember knowing from a very early point in my life. Sleeping Beauty was also the first Disney movie I loved growing up. I remember renting it constantly from the local video store. Do you remember what you liked about it? Oh my gosh, it’s so disturbing to think about now. Of all the princesses, she’s probably the most passive. The story happened while she was asleep! I have no idea why that movie spoke to me; the messages in that movie are especially problematic for little girls. You write about how growing up, you’d tell all your friends the story of how your parents met. Your dad was the football coach and PE teacher; your mom was the cheerleader. What did you love about their story? I think part of it was that their story implied this sense of fate, or destiny, or momentum that brought them together. I loved the detail when I was a kid that my mom initially set my dad up with her older sister, and then my aunt ended up marrying my dad’s best friend, and then they all had this double wedding. It just felt like the kind of story you could see in a movie. I think as a kid, it gave me this real sense of security and belonging.When did you start getting obsessed with love stories? Was it after your parents’ divorce or all throughout your childhood? I’ve always been into love stories, but I think my parents’ divorce was the inciting incident that made me want to step back and think more critically about the narratives we consume. I’m an English teacher, so I think a lot about how stories influence the way we think about the world. Also, just as a person, I think I felt a little anxiety about love, so I wanted to take this thing that made me feel anxious and see if I could think about it a little more clinically and see exactly what was going on there. And throughout the book, you mention a lot of studies or academic papers about the science of love, where you’re looking at love through this outsider’s perspective. Reading all of this stuff, did it help you make sense of your own relationship with your ex-boyfriend? It did, but a lot of that happened retrospectively. As we were breaking up, which was a year-long process, I found it so reassuring to read the science, the biology of heartbreak, which made me feel that while this is awful, it’s awful for everyone, and that awful-ness is predictable and normal. Was there anything in particular you found especially reassuring? I had this huge fear before we ended that relationship that I would just never, ever meet anyone I loved the way I loved him. During that period, I read the study about Arthur Aron’s 36 questions and I remember thinking, oh, maybe it’s just science. Maybe it’s as simple as creating this experience in your brain. I was very skeptical of the study, but it did make me feel like love was this really ordinary experience, it’s normal and pedestrian, even though it feels quite profound, magical and mysterious. I think I just needed to know that: It’s not like I was giving up my only chance at ever finding love. I think when you’re breaking up with someone, it’s easy to think, “Maybe this is ‘The One’ and I’m making a mistake” and then in retrospect you realize, like, oh no, no, I made the right decision to end that. I don’t think you can just follow your gut. I feel like our guts are often really wrong. Yes! They are! I wish we talked about this more. There’s this sense that gut feelings are good and reliable, but when you explore the neurochemistry of love and the way it acts in your brain and the effects it has on our emotional states, it’s like, oh, actually, this isn’t a reliable mode of decision making at all.I remember reading your Modern Love column and, right after, telling my boyfriend, “We should answer these 36 questions and then stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes!” Then there’s the moment you describe when you and Mark are at restaurant and you hear the couple at the table next to yours going through the questions. After the essay went viral, what kind of reactions did you get from people?What was interesting about that experience was that after having written about love stories for all these years, and then suddenly seeing my own relationship become the kind of story that I didn’t quite believe in. Right after the essay came out, strangers would say, “I have to ask…are you guys still together?” and when I would say yes, and they’d be like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I just thought, you know, all they want is to feel like this thing works. Nobody wants to talk about the quality of the relationship or how going through this experience impacted the way we interact. “Are you together? Great!” What did you learn about yourself during the writing process? I think the biggest thing I realized was the authority that the normative script of love had in my life, and I think in most of our lives. These scripts for how love should shape our lives, they’re so powerful, I think they’re almost invisible. A lot of folks call this the “relationship escalator,” this idea that you unthinkingly move from casual dating, to exclusivity, to co-habitation, to marriage, to buying a house and to having kids. So many of us do that because that’s prescribed by our culture. The thing that I got out of the years of research more than anything else was realizing I can have a good life even if it doesn’t match that narrative. I feel a lot more empowered to create the kind of relationship that works for me and my partner, rather than just sort of following the predetermined script. And when you start pursuing more diverse stories of love, [you realize] there are lots of different ways that love can shape a life. Are there any movies or TV shows you’ve seen recently that do a good job of going off-script? I really love Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. I think why it’s so great is that he’s done the research. He wrote his book, Modern Romance, with sociologist Eric Klinenberg. He was using his stand-up shows as venues for doing focus groups on, like, how to date and what works and what doesn’t. On the show, he rejects a lot of these tropes that feel really familiar to us. In the [season finale] in the first season, Aziz and his girlfriend are at a wedding together and as they’re watching the couple get married, you hear their own internal monologues: “Oh my god, why don’t I feel this way about my partner?”, “Does this mean our relationship is bad?” Nobody talks about that feeling, but so many people have it. When I think about current politics, climate change and everything that’s happening in the world, in some ways, the idea of love stories feels like such a quaint concept. When you were writing this book, did you ever doubt the importance of love? There’s been times, especially in the past year, where I’ve thought, oh my god, this feels so trivial compared to like, basic human rights, which I felt were constantly being jeopardized thanks to a lot of political changes. The more I think about love and love stories though, the more I’m like, everything is political. The way we think about love is often connected to things like basic human rights. Our love stories influence who we think is allowed to experience love. I think the proliferation of more stories about people who are queer or consensually non-monogamous, the more we’re able to think, “I actually have a lot in common with that person” and acknowledge their fundamental humanity. It is so important that we consume media about different love stories, whether it’s a polyamorous, interracial or queer love stories. I think going in I had this idea that the real problem was the power of heteronormative love stories and how they were closing everyone else out. Our stories were very much about attractive, thin, white straight people who were married or heading towards marriage. I thought, “I’m going to write about these stories because they’re the problems.” I realized pretty quickly that that’s wrong. Lots of love stories, even queer love stories or less normative ones, are still problematic. So many love stories really fetishize love as the most profound, meaningful experience you’re going to have in your entire life. For plenty of people, there are other parts of their lives that are more profound.You devote a chapter to breaking down Cinderella and Pretty Woman, and the connection between love and deservingness, which I had never thought about before. This idea that if you’re not in love, then there’s something inherently bad or wrong about you. It’s ridiculous and I think it’s very much related to the stigma of being single in our society. It’s so hard for people to acknowledge that someone might enjoy being single. Amatonormativity, which comes from the philosopher Elizabeth Blake, is this idea that we’re all happier, more full-filled and better off in a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship. If we could let that go, people might be more able to practice love in the way that we’d all benefit from. I think the emphasis on deservingness and goodness is really so gendered. What it means to be lovable if you’re a woman is so different from what it means to deserve love if you’re a man. There was a study that showed women who have implicit romantic fantasies show less ambition, less personal power and less desire for achievement, and that they tend to conceptualize achievement as something they’ll do through a romantic relationship, like through a man. If you let that sink in, it’s so disturbing and yet I think I was exactly that kind of 19-year-old. I think I probably conceptualized myself as someone who was very independent and yet when I look at my relationship at the time, I thought my ex-boyfriend Kevin was so interesting, that if I attached myself to him, then people will know I’m interesting. It didn’t occur to me to just become interesting, which is so awful. Do you think these ideas are specific to women? Yes, absolutely. To deserve love as a woman, you need to be “good,” and the women who are rewarded with love in most stories that dominate the mainstream are obedient, meek, mild, sweet, cute, small and frail. They have this very conventional, feminine vulnerability. Even Julia Roberts’s character in Pretty Woman, she’s obviously sort of sex positive in a way that seems radical in 2017, and yet at the same time, there’s the scene where Richard Gere’s character thinks she’d doing drugs in the bathroom and she’s just flossing her teeth. It’s like, oh, actually she’s naïve, young and good. She’s a perfect partner for this powerful man because her whole contribution to their relationship is helping him loosen up and be his best self, but there is no self-actualization on her part. Her presumed role in the future of their relationship is just to make him better.I have a theory that the RomComs you liked when you were young are a good indication of how you perceived yourself. I always loved Never Been Kissed with Drew Barrymore because I was an aspiring writer and kind of dorky looking, like Drew Barrymore’s character [pre-mandatory makeover]. I liked how in the end, she got the handsome guy who liked her for her intelligence. What was your favourite growing up? There were a bunch of them, but I think the one I saw myself in was 10 Things I Hate About You. I think it was the same thing: Julia Stiles’s character was smart and self-possessed, and she knew who she was and what she wanted. I just loved her character. She found somebody who was like the perfect match for her. I think that movie came out in when I was 16 or 17 and I remember going to the drive-in movie theater with a bunch of my girlfriends, and we all loved it. We were the sort of girls who didn’t have a lot of boyfriends, we weren’t particularly popular, but we were good at school and we loved Shakespeare. We were like, yes! This is the sort of teen fantasy for us. Does it hold up now? I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I’d say a little bit. There’s this rape culture subplot that I feel like would be hard to pull off now without making it a little more explicit about consent. But Julia Stiles’ character, I still think she’s pretty awesome. You write about how when you were young, you imagined yourself being married at 25 and then having your first kid at 27. I wonder if young girls today imagine their timelines with similar ages, or if everything’s pushed back now. That’s an interesting question. I wish someone would do a study on this. My instinct is on the whole, they don’t imagine their lives the same way because they have more models. The average age of marriage is the highest it’s ever been for men and women. When I talk to my first-year students at UBC, they’re much less interested in marriage than I was at their age. I think there are a variety reasons for that, one of which is economics. Thanks to the recession and housing crisis, people want to establish their careers, be debt-free and in a good financial position before they get married. But I also think that while marriage is obviously still a very important part of our culture, thanks to a variety of social forces, one of which is the most recent wave of feminism, young women feel like there are lots of modes of finding validation and having their humanity affirmed beyond getting married.
What I Learned at Personal Branding School

What does it take to evolve from human being to human brand? If you’re enrolled in the right free online introductory-level course, about five weeks.

Week OneOnce, I'm told, you could have lived a full and meaningful life with nothing more than a tolerable personality. Conversation coursed unmonetized through the boulevards and esplanades, and only the phone company took a cut. Then a handful of dead-eyed Californians decided to mess the whole thing up, under the pretext of revolutionizing communications technology. The Californians said: "Give us your most intimate information, and thousands of hours of your time, and in exchange..."The Californians just kind of trailed off.No matter: We were sold.The idea at first was to share meaningful life events, maybe reconnect with old friends. If you had a handsome nephew, for example, you could share a picture of him. You could even wish that nephew a happy birthday, if it was his birthday.Then the world's economy collapsed. People were so desperate, they turned to their own social networks for cash. Some of us didn't even want cash: attention was good enough. The two were practically the same thing, if you were sufficiently blinded by hope. It was a kind of gold rush, except instead of mining for gold, we made bad jokes about the Oscars, or posted pictures of our asses on Instagram, and then waited for people we'd avoid on the sidewalk to applaud our jokes/asses. Most people did this for fun, but many saw a future in it. The trick was in building a brand.This is more or less how we've wound up here today—“here” being Coursera.org's five-week “Introduction to Personal Branding” course, offered online through the University of Virginia, and “we” being a veritable United Nations of aspiring brand-havers, including but not limited to a Chilean dermatologist, an Uruguayan image-consultant, a Slovenian cultural anthropologist, a man who self-identifies as the "best-kept secret in European jazz," no fewer than three professional marketers (from Brazil, Pakistan and Las Vegas, respectively), a U.S. yarn-dyer, an education administrator from Ghana, a scientist from Switzerland, a communications manager from Columbia—even a podcast host named Paul from Lansing, Michigan.You get all kinds, here at branding school. Triet Dong, in Vietnam, hopes to lift his family out of poverty through his “world-class home-made cakes.” Ann, a widowed auto worker in Dearborn, aims to expand her cosmetics company so she can spend more time with her kids. Derek, clothing company founder from Vancouver, wants to earn a hundred thousand Twitter followers in order to ease his transition into full-time “serial entrepreneurship.” Kimyon—once among ”the most promising vocalists in Massachusetts”—is after nothing less than “the flow of life as it lives inside me.”Guiding us towards these disparate dreams is Ms. Kimberly Barker, a library scientist at the University of Virginia. She looks to be in her early forties, but vlogs with teenage flair—this week’s get-to-know-you lecture is only three minutes long, but Ms. Barker packs it with hair flips, head-slaps, wacky voices and broad pop culture references ("I have a great love of Hobbits—in fact, I am a Hobbit," she claims). In the can-do demotic of hotel-pyramid scheme seminars, stripped of polysyllables for global appeal, she acknowledges that, "in some cultures, the idea of putting yourself forward and saying 'I'm really good at this!' is frowned upon," but assures us that a "very clean," "very authentic" form of branding does indeed exist.Everyone, she says, has a gift to give.But what good's a gift without a solid social strategy?Week TwoI figured this week we'd start studying some memes, maybe diagram a tweet or two. Instead we're told to boil our souls down to three representative adjectives. These "little words," as Ms. Barker calls them, are of massive consequence. They will form the basis of our brands, and in turn the success or laughable failure of our holistic prosperity start-ups, our e-books on "Visioning, Planning and Execution," our whole avoidably pathetic lives, probably.She compares these Words to social speed-bumps, and illuminates the analogy with a personal anecdote. The personal anecdote involves a number of her peers disparaging her and her work in the field of "reputation management" in an e-mail thread she was inadvertently cc'd on. The three-little-words-concept, in this context, is like religion, or "visioning" the slow dismemberment of someone you despise: A barrier between action and thought, and also (probably) a boon to month-over-month Facebook page growth rates, although this connection is as-yet unclarified.Most of my peers' Words, posted in this week's discussion forum, take their cue from Ms. Barker's. “Integrity” makes an especially strong showing, possibly because this week's very first commenter, a former model and aspiring style guru, was quickly reprimanded by a fellow classmate for neglecting it. "This isn't just about promoting a product or service," he reminded her—this is also about "integrity, and promoting ourselves based on our values."I'd call this classmate a miserable pedant, but that would be contrary to the spirit of my Words. Besides, he's only imitating Ms. Barker, for whom branding is a form of missionary work. Everything you do on social media, she says, should both "promote your brand" and "further your values as a brand"—every person their own ethical shampoo company, or fanatically anti-contraceptive arts and crafts chain.In her short lecture on "Brand Authenticity and Your Photo," Ms. Barker talks a bit about Queen Elizabeth I. "Full disclosure," she says. "I am a Queen Elizabeth I fangirl. So much to like about her! Some not good stuff, too, but as far as branding goes she was an absolute genius."Queen Elizabeth's brand was, naturally, being a Queen, and her portraits were loaded with brand-reinforcing symbols—a sun on her left, a moon on her right, a pelican brooch pinned to her breastbone. "What a great symbol for a monarch—so totally brilliant!" she says. More impressive is that, going on about the folkloric significance of 16th-century pelicans, Ms. Barker is in fact subtly boosting her own brand. You look at the Jabba the Hutt and Star Trek figurines on her left, the Harry Potter books stacked on her right, and you think, or are benignly tricked into thinking: This person is just like me.Next up are mission statements. Ms. Barker begins this lecture with a line of poetry, from Mary Oliver's “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The answer, in the short-term, is: “Expand our three words into a short paragraph, and also read a user-contributed Forbes listicle.”As is well-known, the average CEO spends ninety percent of his or her energy on cable news hits, contributed business-mag essays, viral commencement speeches, and podcasts sponsored by mattress companies, and it is this material that forms the core of Ms. Barker's branding philosophy. The Forbes article, titled “Personal Mission Statement Of 13 CEOs And Lessons You Need To Learn,” makes clear that the mission statement is big in the business world, where CEOs who might otherwise spend their workdays poisoning municipal water supplies are kept on the straight and narrow via self-admonishments to, per one example, "live life with integrity and empathy."I can get behind a culture of relentless self-promotion. A basic income guarantee would be preferable, but absent that, most non-violent food-gathering techniques are alright with me. I once watched a certified Influencer power-scroll her Instagram feed at a rate of maybe forty posed lifestyle pics per minute—an epileptic assault of cortado-swirls, beach-side fruit stands, huge ridiculous hats—“liking” nearly every shot as she went, and when I asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m engaging with my community.” Did I scoff? Sigh? Pull out my pen and draft an awful Black Mirror spec script? I did not. The behaviors associated with brand-upkeep are self-evidently sad and repulsive (and I’m not talking about “content” or self-expression—I’m talking about pruning your feeds at three in the morning, unfollowing your own mother for a better TFF), but pointing all that out is boring, and besides the point: We know this, and do it anyway. My take is, brand all you want—just have the decency to never talk about it with anyone, ever.Or you could take Ms. Barker’s approach, and discuss it regularly and at length with your closest friend and family members. The transformation we have been gradually building to here—from human being to human brand—is finally completed in this week's last lecture, "Choosing Your Board of Directors," yet another concept culled from the nexus of self-help literature and PR-mediated Inc. articles. Our Boards—we are each assigned the task of forming a board, as homework—are to be made up of four or five confidants who will closely monitor your posts and match them against your stated Words. Once a year you’ll take them all out for dinner, and a frank, constructive talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going, brand-wise.Obviously, this is not something I am going to do. Whom would I even ask? I know maybe one person who wouldn't openly laugh at a request like that, and we haven't talked in seven years. Luckily Ms. Barker provides an alternate option, which is to form a board without telling our board-members that they’re on it.I picture my pals around a conference table, adjusting each other's party hats. They rise and cheer as I enter the room."Another bang-up quarter!" one of them says."You're a good person, you owe none of us upwards of six hundred dollars, and your persistent unreliability has remained rakish and charming well into your late twenties!" says another.Cake, hugs, etc.Then of course the whole scene tumbles into a particle accelerator of fear and other people's achievements. Law-school-acceptance-statuses collide with tropical vacation photos collide with the thousand-odd data-points which constitute my collapsing brand.And then it was a wrap for week two.Week ThreeAt the end of this week's first lecture, "Choosing the Best Social Media Platform for Your Brand," Ms. Barker invites those of us a little further along in our studies—those of us who have had "a lot of success, or maybe not so much success" with personal branding—to share our stories with the class.If success is measured in material wealth, or the ability to even briefly reflect on your life without wailing dementedly for twenty full minutes, then I suppose I was not a success.But I did have a brand, and the fleeting esteem of an insular Internet community. What I'd do was print out popular websites, cut them up, paste my own satiric content over them and then publish the results on Tumblr, which struck me as a perfectly sensible thing on which to stake a self-image, back in 2013. I even liked doing it, for the first couple of months. The year after that was unbearable, but what was I going to do? Something fun and profitable? Not with a brand to fortify. Plenty of writers have tried to smuggle self-expression into fundamentally mercenary work (studio screenplays, ad copy, daily culture blogging), but here I was trying to liven up work I was doing voluntarily, for free, in the misguided hope that it could lead to anything besides an awful Urban Outfitters book.I'll admit I've sneered through most of Ms. Barker's course so far. I've even laughed, once or twice—not real laughs but forced, performative hate-chuckles, little signals to my next-door neighbor that I wasn't taking any of this drivel seriously, on the off-chance he could hear my laptop through the wall. I've never even seen my neighbor, for all I know he's in there snorting Soylent and lip-synching to TED Talks all day, but I still needed him to know that I was not the kind of guy who would do exactly what I was doing, were I not doing it in a quasi-journalistic context.Except, what was I derisively pretend-laughing at here, exactly? The idea that people should be kind to each other? My classmates' desire to improve their lot in life? I might've thought my content was nobler—I wasn't just churning out shitposts, I put real care into my satirical collages—but I was after the same thing they were.A year into that project, I'd so thoroughly fused with my brand that even the most anodyne post on any social media platform (“visiting Philly—any recs?”) came to feel like a deranged, highly public plea for whatever scraps of love or attention my network had handy; and the fish-brained chaos of Internet life, reborn without context every fourth second, seemed to guarantee that whichever plea I posted last would come to stand in for my entire brand/self in the minds of my extended social network, necessitating a second and in some cases a third or fourth post to replace or complicate the self (the brand?) posited in the first one. I've barely posted a thing since 2014.It was clear that if I ever again wanted to idly link to something on Facebook without teetering on the brink of all-out psychic collapse, I'd need to re-learn the rudiments of—the rationale for—sharing moderately interesting articles on the Internet.And so I try to watch Ms. Barker as if I've never branded before. I try to watch her intro to Twitter like I don't already know what Twitter is, i.e., a place where podcast hosts are famous. Ms. Barker must cover Pepe in Advanced Branding, because here she just sticks to the basics, such as: What exactly is a hashtag? And: how does one log on to Twitter? I picture my aged classmates patiently following her instructions, sending out an innocent test tweet, and spending the rest of the day wondering why a cartoon frog wants to kill them. (Really, the way Ms. Barker talks, you'd think Twitter was some kind of fun, easy-to-use resource for interesting news and opinions.)So that's mostly what we do this week: learn the rudiments of Twitter. We're done distilling ourselves into words and statements: It's time for some real-world practice—or, if your brand is "sucking real hard," praxis. Not that a brand needs to be any one thing, apparently. "Now, I love nature,” Ms. Barker says, during her tour of Twitter. "Is there anything particularly related to my brand about these birch trees with the beautiful sun behind them? Probably not. But I love birch trees, and I love nature, and I fell in love with that and I wanted to use it as my cover photo."A beautiful sentiment. I’ll leave it there.Week FourA slow week here at branding school. No reading material, no homework—just a pair of short videos on update schedules and the optics of automation. The forums are silent as dorm-lounges on the day before spring break; Ms. Barker, her hair suddenly a few shades lighter, addresses us from a white bench in what seems to be a park, backed by branches and assorted greenery. Low in the mix, birds and summer-bugs duet the old-fashioned way before the roar of a distant lawnmower joins their band. I picture myself in an undershirt and colorful shorts, twined around the branch behind and to the right of Ms. Barker. It occurs to me I will never see the back of her head. The front of her head is saying, "I think you should update at least—at least—twice a week," a statement made in crazed defiance of death, sunlight and the single line of Mary Oliver's poetry I am personally familiar with. I mean, what kind of way is this to spend our allegedly wild/precious/singular lives? Soon we'll be stooped, insane, elaborately cathetered, battering neighborhood tweens with canes and limply sucking on mentholated cough drops, every bird-chirp/cicada-thrum/distant-lawnmower-rumble a reminder of wasted vigor, or more likely a reminder of other, long-distant summer days spent indoors, fine-tuning Facebook update schedules.Enough. This line of thinking will get me nowhere, I know. Even sad regretful thoughts are a luxury, in this economy; if I don't firm up my brand now, I'll wind up mourning my youth in an unventilated flophouse, as opposed to—who knows?—a lush historic estate, or a higher class of nursing facility. I'd already doodled and napped my way through sixteen years of regular schooling, all while my peers laid the groundwork for their future high-engagement “Some personal news…” Facebook announcements. I've always hated those posts, and promised myself that if anything good ever happened to me, I'd keep it to myself. This resolve has never been tested, and might never be, if I don't start listening to Ms. Barker. Right now she's explaining the 80/20 rule, whereby one's content ratio should be eighty percent fresh material to twenty percent self-promotion. A sensible rule, I think. I write it down.Ms. Barker's back inside for the next video, her hair returned to its earlier shade of blonde. She is talking now about automated social media updates. "I'm a bad-news-first kind of person," she says, "so I'm gonna start with the downsides." The major downside, as she sees it, is that automated content might dilute or damage the "personal connection" that exists between brands and their followers.The irony here is that the very course we're learning this in is itself automated; as we learned our first week in class, Ms. Barker's direct involvement with Coursera ended sometime in late 2015. She still leads each week's forum discussions, but her prompts were written years ago, and are re-posted verbatim each monthly class cycle. As far as I can tell, there isno one moderating this course; our mission statements and social media anecdotes are being read only by each other, and most of us aren’t even reading them—which strikes me as great training for life on social media.Week FiveAs a rule, humans tend to learn the simple stuff (shoe-tying, double-spaced-essay-writing, etc.) before reckoning with the random terror of neurological degeneration, or the speed with which a wasted month can rot imperceptibly into a wasted half-decade, etc.Well, surprise, surprise: this same principle applies to free ungraded Internet branding courses.Weeks One through Four had sketched social media as a playland of cat photos and opportunities for tasteful self-advancement. Week Five pans out to show the mean-mugged crooks ringing the perimeter. Ms. Barker has alluded to her work in "reputation management" before—it was, recall, what had so bothered her peers—but here she finally makes her case for it. "How many of you use a search engine to find out information about your children's teacher?” she begins. “How many of you use a search engine to find out information about people you're thinking about going on a date with? How many of you use a search engine to read reviews of products that you're thinking about buying?"As she relates these questions, her affect switches, from loose and casual to composed and practiced, and in that switch a searching eye can see dozens of mid-day department presentations, thousands of spongy Costco bagels, who knows what quantity of sneerage, smirk and skeptical eyebrow-play; and indeed these very same rhetorical questions reappear as bullet-pointed prompts (“Teacher,” “Dates,” “Products”) on slide four of Ms. Barker's standard reputation-management slideshow, which we're asked to click through as part of this week's course material.But you can bet those people won't be skeptically raising their eyebrows when it's their turn in the hot seat. Probably, what they'll be doing is contorting their eyebrows into expressions of unfathomable regret and sorrow, as if to say: If only I'd listened to that nice lady from the library! If only I'd taken detailed notes as she elaborated such concepts as Google Truth ("the automatic acceptance of Google results as an accurate representation of reality") and enumerated the dos and don'ts of reputation restoration! Alas, I made a big show of not doing those things, and now thousands of strangers are yelling at me for making uncharitable remarks about the Italian military. Et cetera.I click over to the next video, “A Bit About Mistakes,” in which she details what might be the last and most confusing of her nicknamed mnemonics, the “one two four” rule. “One” is a stand-in for the singular, ineluctably Barkerian truth that "everyone makes mistakes." Okay, simple enough. But then: "The ‘two’ part of the equation is the two things not to do when you make a mistake." Mind the negative—because, of course, "the ‘four’ part of the equation is the four things that you should do when you make a mistake" (emphasis mine; also, the way she describes it, it's really more like five things).The actual substance of what one should and should not do after making a mistake I'll leave unsaid, for reasons of relevance; Ms. Barker has artfully blurred the line between brand and human throughout this course, but here, our time together drawing to a close, she's really just giving us life advice. (Section three, article one of the “one two four” rule clearly stipulates that the mistake-maker look their victim "in the eye" as she or he begins the process of amends-making, and brands obviously don't have eyes, just engagement metrics.)Only at the last moment does Mr. Barker veer her discussion back towards the edge-seeking realities of contemporary Internet marketing, suggesting that a mistake might serve as "an opportunity for you to demonstrate your brand integrity."Next comes “The Highlights of Digital Privacy.” "With digital privacy," she says, "the rule I want you to follow is, just assume there is no privacy. Okay? Just assume that anything you put out there digitally is going to be seen by your worst enemy." By now Ms. Barker is like a real estate agent who runs through all the great nearby shops and restaurants and then starts brightly suggesting you keep a switchblade in your shoe after sunset. She tells us to be wary of free wi-fi ("they [they??] are monitoring that"). She warns us about Big Data, and how it all comes down to selling you something. She tells us to set a "really good password."I click over to the next video, "Jeremy Bentham, Edward Snowden and the Late Capitalist Surveillance State.” Kidding: There is no next video. Ms. Barker is gone. Our class ended there. No teary final bar crawl, no gowned stadium ceremony, not even a diploma to hang at our luxury life-coaching gymnasiums or bespoke skin-cream boutiques (there was the option of a $50 "Shareable Certificate Link," which I would've bought, if I were insane). One moment a surprisingly woke Ms. Barker was lecturing us about Big Data, just another blissful day at branding school; the next we were cast out on our own.I finished class that day with my assumptions shaken—not about Internet privacy (I've seen Citizenfour, too), but about Ms. Barker. Early on in our time together I had done to her what everyone on social media does to everyone else, all of the time: I judged the shit out of her. (Same happens IRL, of course, but there are more opportunities for it online.) I pegged her as a certain social type; I grew a kind of mutant Ms. Barker out of the one small hunk of her personality on display in her lectures, and I mistook that mutant for its fuller counterpart.It was exactly this tendency, projected onto my entire social network, which led me to stop posting online in the first place. And while there’s a fairly obvious lesson here about empathy and imagination and how even the rankest alt-right pustule might conceivably possess a rich interior life, I'd rather just despair at the fact that I have to care about all of this in the first place.I know it’s pointless to pine for a pre-Zuck world: That golden age when, if you wanted to feel inadequate and self-conscious and also thoroughly disgusted with yourself and with humankind generally, you had to get in your car and go to some party. It’s pointless because, as Ms. Barker writes in her slideshow, keeping a low online profile “does NOT equal a positive image and, in fact, can be viewed with suspicion.” I don’t want to be viewed with suspicion. What I want is the unyielding love and attention of as many people as possible. That’s why I spent all that time churning out involved BuzzFeed parodies, back in my branding phase; if I’m being honest with myself—and what choice do I have? Honesty is one of my three little words—it’s probably also why I’m writing this.It's brand or be branded, as the branding experts say. Might as well wield the poker myself.
Burn Me Like a Forest Fire

I wonder if the trees are screaming. I wonder where the birds go. I wonder how anything could ever escape the inferno and rebuild. I think about my marriage.

It is scientific fact that some forests just have to burn. In North America’s dry, western forests, regular fires are necessary and preventative. They reduce the amount of fuel available to a bolt of lightning or an arsonist, thus decreasing the likelihood of inadvertent or otherwise deadly conflagration. They can cut down on pests, burning off the sanctuaries of dead trees and diseased plants. Those burned-out carcasses of our botanical elders can then, by that same token, serve as refuge for nesting birds and skittish mammals.But such fires do not just protect: they are, in their spectacular violence, a way for the forest to rejuvenate itself. They can help stave off the creeping spread of invasive plants that compete with the local flora, which often fails to return after the ash has settled, leaving behind space and sunlight and sought-after soil nutrients for those adapted to stay. The ash, too, is a conspirator in this rebirth, a Robin Hood to what remains, burning some and spreading the wealth of sequestered nutrition back into the soil to be used by many.And then there are the seeds.There is a phenomenon in botany known as serotiny. It describes an adaptation in certain plants in which the release of seeds requires an environmental trigger, be it the death of the parent plant or the addition of moisture. When the release of seeds is contingent upon fire, it is known as pyriscence. The great Sequoias of Yosemite are pyriscent. In order for one of these gentle towers to start its life cycle anew, there must be flame. It is a true phoenix; it is of the ashes.But just because a forest is built to burn, or needs to burn, or is desperately trying its goddamn hardest to transform itself through combustion and kindling, it doesn’t mean the process is benign. Destruction may be necessary, but it is not particularly pleasant. Consider the caterpillar, its insides turning to soup, cramped inside a coffin of its own making.I think a lot about those forests burning. I wonder if the trees are screaming. I wonder where the birds go. I wonder how on earth anything could ever escape an inferno, never mind find within the wreckage the raw materials of rebuilding.I think about my marriage.*I know now that I made my home in a volatile forest. I loved those woods, and for seven years found solace there, huddled in the overgrowth of an untended underbrush, scaling the ancient trees to the illusion of safety, working tirelessly to save each sapling and bush hearty enough to bury its roots in our fertile soil. It was a beautiful, joyous place when there was joy to be had, but it was not safe, and more often than not I suffered and cowered. Living there required a certain kind of brokenness, that I should supplicate myself to allay the fears of another. But I am wild, and this was untenable.I was so busy trying to survive the untenable ecosystem of my marriage—so deeply protective of the vast expanse in which I’d built my life—that I couldn’t see it. My forest, my beloved forest, needed to burn. All my strangled protestations and daily rituals would—and did—eventually falter.But making a forest wait to burn only makes the inevitable fire bigger. And when the fire came—the big one—I fought it.I fought back with buckets of water, with hoses, with helicopters fat with foamy fire retardants. I ran into the thick of it, naked and frantic, breathing hard and smelling the acrid aftermath of my soft, blonde body hair, burnt away by the flames that licked my exposed skin. Unable to let go, I developed ominous burns on my fingertips that swelled to rose-colored grapes then shrank into thick, black scabs that cracked underneath like tortoiseshell. Years of “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” would ring in my ears, the worn devotional that brought me back into the forest again and again and again.In the early days of his reign, Smokey Bear informed the public that western wildfires were mainly the fault of humans. In fact, while there are between six and ten human-caused blazes in Yellowstone National Park annually, lightning is responsible for around thirty-five fires there a year. But as everyone knows, the siren call of “help me” is the most seductive of cries.I alone could not stop my forest from burning and I was a fool to try.*In the early twentieth century, there was a fire that changed everything. Known as the “Big Blowup,” the Great Fire of 1910 burned an area the size of Connecticut clean through Washington, Idaho, and Montana. It got its name from the circumstances that spawned it: hurricane-force winds whipped up by a cold front that swept into the area, bringing hundreds of small fires into two towering infernos.At the time, the burgeoning U.S. Forest Service—then the National Forest Service and on the verge of cancellation—was ill-equipped to handle the disaster. But something had to be done, of course. This is America. Prior to this burn, there had been some debate about how to deal with forest fires: Do we let them burn, or should we put them out?It’s a familiar moment in times of chaos, a reckoning that forces us to choose the guardianship of preservation or the cool remove of letting nature take its course. The NPS chose to fight, a decision not without consequence: the blaze, the largest in history, roared for two days and killed eighty-seven people, the majority firefighters themselves.When Ferdinand A. Silcox, a firefighter in the Big Blowup, became chief of the fire service, he promoted the arboreal version of “never go to bed angry”: the 10 a.m. policy. Under this protocol, the goal was to suppress every reported fire by 10 a.m. the next day. If you have ever been caught in a cycle of anger and absolution with a loved one, this technique will be immediately recognizable and ring unquestionably doomed.The suppression began. In play by the 1940s were the smokejumpers: firefighters who would parachute into lands ablaze to quench the transformative chaos. The idea was that the smokejumpers would fall from the sky into remote wilderness, showing up to smother the early flames before they could burn the forest proper.But twenty years after the ban on fires became written mandate, one glaring aside became too noisy to ignore: there were no new giant sequoias growing in the forest. Fire suppression, we were learning, had not protected the forests—it had muzzled them.In the early 1960s, Dr. Richard Hartesveldt was studying the curious link between fire and sequoia regeneration. After nearly a century of fire suppression in the western United States, his small-scale prescribed burns brought about the germination of sequoias and the recruitment of their seedlings. As Dr. Hartesveldt so deftly demonstrated, these venerable conifers needed their pine cones to feel the oven blast of flames before their seeds would be released. They needed the rich nutrient ash of freshly scalded forest to nurture their young. Without the open canopy of a scorched landscape to welcome them into the sky, their babies would never become great.His findings were the precursor to the 1963 Leopold Report, the product of an advisory panel helmed by the document’s namesake, Dr. Starker Leopold, who’d been appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to weigh in on how we should tend our forests. The report was clear: we should manage our ecosystems in a way that most closely accords with the native needs of our natural systems. We had to make space for fire.*Sometimes we wait for flames and let them smolder, and sometimes we set the fires ourselves. These are prescribed burns. When I was a wee field researcher running around Florida scrub lands, gripping a clipboard and sunscreen with equal desperation, I got to see one close up.Do not let the tepid jargon fool you: prescribed burns are revelatory to behold.A short walk from the rustic cabin at the Tall Timbers Research station that was my temporary home was the edge of the blaze. As I got closer, the hot winds of flame pushed back against my skin ever so slightly, parting the stagnant air of a wet, Southern afternoon in June. Before me, men in sturdy garments wielded flame throwers, torching the ground with a wholly unnerving nonchalance. The grass took to combustion with great enthusiasm, sparking up into oranges and reds and yellows before lapping away from us at the whims of the winds we knew were blowing. A wall of flames engulfed the forest, climbing the dried vines as they climbed the trees, crackling and roaring and shrieking an atonal distress signal. Birds flew out of the apocalypse, lit from behind by a palette best suited for Samhain or Michael Bay.It is a word we use with bored remove, but I mean it in earnest when I say that the sight was awesome. I was terrified, overwhelmed, the precursor to tears burning my eyes as acutely as the purpled smoke snaking through the air. We did this, we started this, this is on our hands—but it was necessary. Pale white ash floated down from the sky, catching the fibers of my quick-dry field clothes like wintery precipitation on cold eyelashes. It was snowing in Florida. I knew what we were doing needed to be done, but it felt like I was party to a crime of expansive cruelty all the same.It felt like a breakup.*The implosion of my marriage, however, was not so deliberate or predictable. This fire wasn’t planned alongside a careful adjudication of how the winds were blowing, and it certainly wasn’t a calculus presented by a team of seasoned professionals. This blaze was borne of the age of fire suppression: long overdue and packed with more fuel than anyone knew how to control. It was devastation writ large, a biblical imagining of what two people could conjure. It was the end of something.Was he the forest and I merely a visitor to his lands, ill-suited to weather the unpredictable but ultimately cyclic nature of his needs? Or was I the forest, a taciturn box of tinder playing with a book of matches, staving off the end of a painful chapter by stamping my feet on the sparks?A quiet part of me suspects that perhaps we together were the forest, the nature of our twin efforts as spectacular and inviting as they were doomed and unsustainable. Maybe if we’d let it burn back when it first needed to, we could have avoided such a terrible blaze. Maybe we would have even withstood the heat, resowed the seeds of intention and blind optimism and regrown together, stronger and healthier than before. But the forest of my marriage was not the healthy, wet ecosystem of the Appalachian temperate rainforest—it was an arid expanse screaming for rain, littered with downed trees full of pith that crumbled between the fingers.Our forest was packed with nature’s dynamite.We don’t always get to choose our roles in this cycle of destruction and rebirth, but I think I’d like to be a pyriscent seed: free to be carted off by a careless wind or a hungry squirrel, marked by the flames of my beloved forest burning, ready to settle into healing fallen ash. It could be that the forest I loved so dearly would never have been conducive to my growth. Maybe now is the time to find a soft expanse of nurturing soil and unfettered sunlight. At long last, maybe now is when I unfurl the first tender leaves of autonomy and lay roots in a solitary, skyward existence of my very own.
Polymathic Spree

On Leonora Carrington, B. Catling, and the alternate, revealing visions of the world that can emerge when artists explore multiple disciplines.

We live in a multidisciplinary era. Kanye West sells out arenas and designs fashion; Bob Dylan makes acclaimed albums and takes home the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some figures pursue multiple creative disciplines in tandem: as readers of her memoir Just Kids can attest, Patti Smith’s beginnings as both a poet and songwriter were inexorably intertwined. A recent article on Hyperallergic about Agnès Varda noted that “[i]n the last 15 years, Varda has embraced the label of visual artist rather than the more specific filmmaker.” Others take on new challenges later in life. In the mid-1990s, visual artists Robert Longo, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel all delved into the world of filmmaking, with mixed results: Schnabel has continued to make films to general acclaim, while Longo’s first feature film, the William Gibson adaptation Johnny Mnemonic, has also been his only feature film to date.The visual artists who have made the foray into prose appear fewer in number, but their work remains fascinating, both in terms of how it dovetails (or not) with their work in other mediums and how it is received by larger audiences. There’s a question of accessibility: art can have an inherent sort of exclusivity, where a specific work may end up in a museum, a gallery, or a permanent collection. A book, on the other hand, is more democratic: for fifteen dollars or so you can own a new trade paperback; for less than that, you can purchase an electronic edition; and your local library may well have a few copies on hand as well.Leonora Carrington is one figure whose work spans the rarefied strata of 20th-century fine art and compellingly surreal fiction. Carrington was a Surrealist artist with an extensive career: she died in her nineties, and was making work constantly for most of her life. In the obituary that ran in the New York Times after her death in 2011, the focus was on her paintings and sculptures, while her work in prose was primarily confined to a short paragraph at the end:“Ms. Carrington wrote short stories and novels in the same Surrealist vein as her artwork. In 1988, Dutton published The House of Fear: Notes From Down Below, an anthology of her work, and The Seventh Horse and Other Tales.”The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several of Carrington’s works in their collection. Only one is on display, though the museum's website lists all of them as not being on view. Meanwhile, there’s a copy of her cult novel The Hearing Trumpet on a shelf fifteen feet behind me, and copies of new editions of two of her books on the desk to my side: the short memoir Down Below (from NYRB Classics, which also released a Carrington work for children, The Milk of Dreams, earlier this year) and The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, published this spring by Dorothy, a Publishing Project, which contains stories that first appeared in The House of Fear: Notes From Down Below and The Seventh Horse and Other Tales. It’s a welcome moment in literary rescues—when I was researching this article on Carrington’s prose several years ago, nearly all of her books save The Hearing Trumpet were out of print, with the price of used editions out of the realm of the casual reader. (Research was conducted in the reading room of the New York Public Library, each edition taken from the non-circulating collection.)Having these books out in the world provides a wider picture of Carrington as a writer. The Hearing Trumpet is a terrific and charming read about an elderly woman whose family places her in a home for the aged. There, she discovers the existence of occult rituals taking place on the premises, which in turn has wide-ranging and transformative effects. It’s a fine book,11It’s also bolstered by Carrington’s illustrations—another way in which her art and prose converged. Carrington also contributed illustrations to her friend Elena Poniatowska’s Lilus Kikus and Other Stories; in 2011, Poniatowska published the novel Leonora, a fictionalized version of Carrington’s life. but it’s only part of her overall body of work. And, perhaps, Carrington’s work being released now will open it up to a warmer critical reception than when it was first published. Kirkus’s review of Carrington’s 1977 novel The Stone Door isn’t exactly glowing. Its first sentence: “A surreal fantasy of exasperating self-importance, only occasionally redeemed by a flash of wit or pungency.” (I happen to disagree with this assessment.)That said, Carrington’s work has had highly respected champions over the years: critically acclaimed writers Porochista Khakpour and Ben Marcus22Marcus’s allusion to Carrington in his introduction to a recent edition of David Ohle’s Motorman was what piqued my interest in her writing, in fact. have cited her prose in their nonfiction, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer included Carrington’s story “White Rabbits” in their mammoth 2012 anthology of surreal and strange fiction, The Weird. In a 2012 piece for The Guardian, Björk spoke admiringly about The Hearing Trumpet, praising “its freedom, its humour and how it invents its own laws.” Some of those devotees of Carrington’s work have had a hand in the new editions of her work out in the world now. The introduction to Carrington’s Collected Stories comes from Kathryn Davis, author of numerous acclaimed works of surreal and unsettling fiction, while Marina Warner, known for her scholarly work on religion and mythology, supplied the introduction to the new edition of Down Below.This new availability of Carrington’s prose also grants us the full measure of all of her creative works as they relate to one another. In the story “Uncle Sam Carrington,” the narrator recalls a moment from her childhood when she became lost in the woods one night and witnessed an unsettling sight: two cabbages engaged in a fight to the death. She wonders if she’s in a nightmare, but then remembers that she’s still awake. And then she has a curious encounter: “Walking along I met a friend. It was the horse who, years later, was to play an important part in my life.” In the context of her fiction, where animals frequently adopt human characteristics and weird moments collide with the mundane, this doesn’t seem so strange. The protagonist of “The Debutante” befriends a hyena, who takes her place at a dinner table, for instance. But in light of Carrington’s artwork, which frequently featured horses as a motif, “Uncle Sam Carrington” takes on another wrinkle: if we take the first-person narrator to be a young version of Carrington herself, then this becomes something bolder: the artist writing her own origin story, and giving her own early years an added layer of mythology.A different sort of mythology emerges from the work of Brian Catling, who writes as B. Catling. He’s a sculptor and performance artist, but he’s also known for his sprawling, surreal novels The Vorrh and its new sequel, The Erstwhile. Both novels are largely set in the early twentieth century, blend real and imagined characters, and engage with everything from the legacy of imperialism to the nature of conflict to the juxtaposition of futuristic technology and primeval landscapes. It’s heady stuff that eludes any sort of classification: in The Erstwhile, Catling writes movingly about the aftermath of the First World War, but also throws mysterious angelic figures into the mix, while The Vorrh throws body horror, strange organic weaponry, and archaic robots into the mix. Both books feel like a distillation of a particular set of interests—histories political and cultural, phantasmagoric figures, the nature of humanity—cast onto the page with an abundance of thrills and tension.At the center of these books is a figure known as Ishmael, who begins The Vorrh as a cyclops and, by the time of The Erstwhile, has had his body altered into a more conventional form. The cyclops is a figure that’s recurred in Catling’s art as well: the description of a 2008 exhibit of his work invokes the presence of “Cyclopic figures,” and states that “[t]hese portraits of what should be monsters, possess a strange beauty and sympathy.” And given that The Vorrh and The Erstwhile include characters both human and supernatural, that statement can and does seem to be applicable to his prose as well.Catling was born in 1948, and at first glance seems to fall into the category of an artist who seeks out a new discipline late in his career. From reading conversations with him, however, this seems not perfectly accurate. In an interview with Ryan Britt for Electric Literature, Catling acknowledged that he was coming to writing somewhat late in life, but in his case, he didn’t lack for inspiration—instead, technological advances helped him with his work. “I’m dyslexic … the words flow, but not always in a way that people would recognize,” he told Britt. “The laptop was the first mechanism that I could take with me and that helped.”The example of Leonora Carrington allows readers and viewers to examine one person’s complete works in a number of disciplines. In the case of Catling, he’s continued working on fine art and prose in parallel. In a 2015 interview with SF Signal, Catling was asked about the relationship between his fiction and the work he’s done in other artistic disciplines. His answer was revealing:“The writing of fiction wiped away the video work, because it was direct and had a kindred narrative potency. It hushed the poetry because it drank deeply from the same blood of mystery and enigma. The sculpture and performance work evolved sideways, so that my obsession with making things and bringing them to life was not compromised by description and the need to explain.”Catling and Carrington may be two of the most visible examples of late of people who have created both compelling art and written work, but they’re certainly not alone: a recent exhibit of work by Sylvia Plath delved into her forays into visual art, and Édouard Levé’s work in photography and prose often overlapped, too. The way that visual art and prose that emerge from the same mind can wrap around each another, their thematic concerns intersecting and their central imagery overlapping, and the subsequent deeper readings of each this allows, can make a powerful impact. There are alternate ways of seeing the world, alternate means by which concepts travel through someone’s mind and onto a canvas or a page. In finding how they differ and converge, they offer us a glimpse into an artist’s mind, leaving us with a more substantial sense of something larger, and revealing the potential ways through which heady concepts and grand themes can be translated into a host of artistic forms.
An Efficient System of Exploitation

Despite filming her last feature in the ’40s, Dorothy Arzner remains Hollywood’s most prolific female director—what does that say about Hollywood?

Hollywood Lesbians, a collection of interviews the entertainment writer Boze Hadleigh published in 1994, now feels more antique than many of its subjects. Nearly all of them had been supporting players: sidekicks, wealthy aunts, the occasional villain. Hadleigh’s style is aggressively gossipy—a companion book about male stars claims the eighty-year-old Cary Grant made a pass at him—and he moves from empathy to insinuation with actresses like Judith Anderson and Patsy Kelly, posing them for posterity’s camera. The questioning so annoys Barbara Stanwyck that she throws him out of her house.11Clifton Webb, who wore boutonnières like Venus flytraps, is quoted calling Stanwyck “my favourite American lesbian,” a poisonous laurel, perhaps, considering how his character treated another favourite in Laura. Hadleigh’s interview with 1930s director Dorothy Arzner begins in a similar bent: “Did you play with dolls or trucks or something else as a child?”“Just about everything except dolls,” comes the sly response. I imagined an apprentice fencer circling around their partner’s rapier.Arzner was the only subject that Hadleigh never personally met; retired from filmmaking since the World War II drama First Comes Courage thirty years before, she had grown reclusive when her longtime partner died, seldom leaving their house in the California desert city La Quinta. But he provokes some sharply insightful comments about her place in classical Hollywood’s hierarchy: “They would avoid me for westerns or action pictures. If it was a love story, then they thought of me. The studios’ A-scripts often eluded me. I would be given an actress’s first starring assignment—not quite an A-picture in terms of prestige, but unequivocally not a B-picture. If the actress became a star, they got someone else to direct her.”One of the star-rearing errands was 1933’s aviation melodrama Christopher Strong. Arzner shared an unfriendly respect with its young lead Katharine Hepburn, already leaning into that indomitable persona—what the critic Parker Tyler called “a jutting manner both vocal and calisthenic.” Her flying-ace character is supposed to be British, a transatlantic Earhart, though few people seem more American. Christopher Strong’s screenplay handles the story so awkwardly that they named it after her love interest, a stodgy married MP who only stays up late to work on speeches about monetary policy. Arzner sometimes has nothing to do besides panning slowly over a letter. But as these characters consummate their affair, there’s a lovely shot of Hepburn’s hand turning on the bedside lamp, cushioning the bracelet Christopher gave her with voluptuous shadow. Arzner saw the moments when domestic rituals turn pagan. Before our pilot crashes her plane in spectacularly gallant sacrifice, Hepburn gets to wear, for no real reason, a moth costume made of filmy silver.Arzner had an acute sense of place, onscreen and in life. She once said the directors of 1930s Hollywood were no more than “hired help.” Jeanine Basinger’s book The Star Machine describes what that system was like: Even movie stars were typically employed on seven-year contracts, binding them to a particular studio, which could cast the actors in whichever project it desired—along with dictating their interviews, appearances, and conveniently public dates. If a star resisted any of that, or their 72-hour workweeks, executives could also terminate the contract at will. The five major studios all owned their own cinema chains; they required independent theatres to buy numerous films simultaneously under the practice of “block booking,” which bundled the most coveted releases together with B-movies and potential flops. Shifting financial risk onto exhibitors, the studios were able to maintain production continuously. Only the most superficial details would be provided—some of the films in each package hadn’t been shot yet.It was an efficient system of exploitation. By the 1930s, major studios were releasing dozens of pictures a year; today they might manage half that number. Jeanine Basinger notes that MGM could complete a feature-length movie every nine days. Until 1948, when an antitrust case ended block booking, forced the majors to sell off each theater chain, and allowed the television networks to confirm their new medium’s popularity, the American film industry was a self-contained oligopoly. Dorothy Arzner spent her entire career inside that world. Her debut Fashions for Women was released in 1927, a few months before The Jazz Singer introduced sound to cinema; her last movie First Comes Courage appeared in 1943, as Hollywood struggled to groom male stars for the post-war era.22Several of these young actors could never be drafted after some gruesome injury: Van Johnson got exempted because a car accident left him with a metal plate in his head. "I went out with the big studio era,” Arzner told an oral history project decades later. “I wouldn't say that I left it. I think it left me also."In The Work of Dorothy Arzner, the first critical study of its subject, Claire Johnston argues that classical Hollywood is both industry and ideology, a “system of representations.” Arzner is still little-known beyond scholars and film nerds four decades later, even as the discrimination that worked against her looks increasingly glaring.33Seven percent of last year’s 250 highest-grossing movies were made by women. She remains Hollywood’s most prolific female director—and what does that say about Hollywood? In the earliest days of the movies, when cinema existed as a curious novelty or avant-garde experiment, far more women found positions behind the camera, only to get pushed out as the studios evolved into standardized conglomerates. Yet the system’s inequities also granted distribution and preservation to the work of its servants. Esther Eng, another gay director, was making Chinese-language movies around the same time; today all but two are lost. “Any woman on her own is threatening or even villainous,” Arzner told Boze Hadleigh. “If she is a villain, she must be extirpated.”*Dorothy Arzner was born in 1897, probably—she habitually claimed 1900 as the real date, determined to be a child of the 20th century. Her family left San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city, settling in Los Angeles, where her father Louis ran a restaurant that catered to theatre types and the nascent film industry. Some of the famous regulars are now so obscure that they might as well be medieval bards, but D. W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin also shared a table there. Arzner always denied that this environment influenced her career, and she did initially enroll in medical school at the University of Southern California. “I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly,” she recalled. “I didn't want to go through all the trouble of medicine. So that took me into the motion picture industry.”44Reversing Roland Barthes’s response to the photograph of Lewis Powell, a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, awaiting execution: “He is dead and he is going to die.”The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 provided a macabre opportunity. Movie studios needed replacement staff, and Arzner got an invitation to Paramount from William De Mille, Cecil’s sibling (his director brother edited their surname so it would look better on marquees). Asked what she wanted to do in Hollywood, Arzner said that she would be happy to start “at the bottom.” De Mille snapped: “Wheredo you think the bottom is?” She ended up working as a script typist, badly. Judith Mayne’s Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only book-length study of her work, quotes from a later profile: “There was a big, redheaded Irish girl ... who was a wonder at typing. She took pity on me and did more than half of my work. But for her I wouldn't have lasted a week.”By some miracle, Arzner soon got promoted; she would be overseeing the continuity between script and screen for Alla Nazimova’s latest film Stronger Than Death. The Russian émigré was known to flamboyantly dominate any production she starred in; several years later she went bankrupt adapting Oscar Wilde’s Salome, an Art Deco tribute to Edwardian decadence that manages to make monochrome look extravagant. Look at the “personal life” section in any biography of a queer woman from early Hollywood, and Nazimova will reliably appear. Rumour suggests an affair, although Arzner did not love her colleague’s work habits: “I was around actors a lot, so I was not impressed by the acting off screen, as it were.” She quickly moved on anyway, turning to film editing—a job considered tedious drudgery back then, and thereby open to women. Arzner was praised for piecing together some of the earliest action scenes, cutting fluidly between Rudolph Valentino close-ups and stock footage of Madrid bullfights on Blood and Sand. She eventually threatened to quit unless Paramount recognized her skill with a chance to direct. They gave in.[[{"fid":"6700966","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1262","width":"1000","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]By 1929, Paramount trusted Arzner enough that she got to make The Wild Party, the first talkie featuring its star actress Clara Bow. They had already collaborated on the romantic comedy Get Your Man, with Bow as a blithe American flapper who charms various French aristocrats into doing her bidding—she moved through manorial gardens like a curling tornado. (At one point the spurned love interest telegrams: "YOU HAVE KILLED MY FAITH IN WOMEN FOREVER. I'M GOING TO AFRICA TO SHOOT LIONS.") But studio executives worried about how her native Brooklyn honk would come across onscreen, and Bow kept glancing nervously at microphones mid-take, so Arzner invented a new boom mic. For her the director dutifully played straight woman. David Stenn’s Bow biography Runnin’ Wild recounts: "I told [Clara], 'Now, I don't want a lot of men around here, and I don't want any nonsense going on.' So Clara, who was really a very sweet child, would sit in her dressing room with the door wide open and say, 'See? No one in here!'"The Wild Party belongs to a liminal moment. Bow’s character Stella is supposed to be falling in love with her anthology professor, seemingly the only person at this august women’s college not getting drunk every night, who claims he would kill for her and then says things like: “If you paid the slightest attention to my lectures, you’d know that I spent considerable time in the jungle.” Yet the film spends whole scenes relaxing with her roommates and friends, looking at men from afar. As Stella’s crew crash a party in matching lightning-bolt outfits, pacing slouches: Arzner captures the longueur that only exists between 4 a.m. and dawn, how the night distends at its end. Although The Wild Party was marketed as Clara Bow’s first talkie, she’s often shown reacting silently to something off-screen: emotions felt before and beyond language. As Arzner shot these close-ups, Bow stared into a void of drab black cloth.During her interview with Boze Hadleigh, Arzner mentions the Motion Picture Production Code, which maintained puritanical moral standards from 1934 to the mid-1960s. Crime and adultery should never be rewarded, even with sympathy; “sex perversion or any inference to it” was forbidden. But directors hid nuance in those stories anyway, knowing the audience’s psyche would always be unregulated. Arzner argued that the Code did force female characters to the centre of the frame: In the Hollywood “women’s film,” they could live wildly, go crazy, abandon their families, even if they had to be destroyed or redeemed by the time credits rolled. Jeanine Basinger’s book A Woman’s View describes the “bliss montage” that interrupts many of these movies: “The leading lady can be seen laughing her head off, dressed in fabulous clothes, racing across the water in a speedboat, her yachtsman lover at her side … [The Bliss Montage] is a woman’s small piece of action, her marginal territory of joy.” Those borders were guarded. “At fadeout,” Arzner said, “there had to be a man and woman, newly joined or about to be, with a future full of traditional gender roles.”The contemporary press never figured out how to explain Arzner herself: those fine white suits, the hair worn cropped beneath a beret. She was butch, but she was also short, slight, and loath to raise her voice, which confused reporters too. You see the word tomboy over and over again. I cringe even more when a reporter tries to show how “girlish” she really was, fastening onto a lace collar like some intrepid scientist. The director’s biographer quotes from a 1927 article: “Altogether you could be easily fooled into thinking Dorothy Arzner is beautiful.” Flattering to believe that a glamour was cast for your gaze alone. As a gay woman on the stages of Hollywood, Arzner could be prominent yet obscured, decisive but not free.*Describing the unnatural palette of his film Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk once said: “Almost throughout the picture I used deep-focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can’t break through.” When people define melodrama as a genre, they’re usually thinking of domestic-romantic films like the ones Arzner directed, even though action movies can reach the same emotional velocity. Why not call melodrama a style of ambivalence, someone trying to express what the form of the world suppresses? In her book The Desire to Desire, Mary Ann Doane argues that sentimental love stories are both “central and marginal” to the classical Hollywood cinema. Acting melodramatic is being too much.Arzner’s eye for social theatre made her sensitive to this tension. When we first see the newspaper columnist Jerry in 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell, he’s sitting behind a fort of empty liquor bottles, mocking the gathering from its distant edge: “Silly people.” He manages to win the attention of the canned-goods heiress Joan Prentice, and Arzner contrives a neon sign for her company behind them, like a fallen star held in glowing stasis. Joan’s father opposes the relationship, which sounds reasonable enough, since Jerry is a broke alcoholic who shows up drunk to the engagement party. Faintly resembling Ralph Fiennes, the star Fredric March plays him with easygoing detachment—a party of one. Marriage inspires him to sober up for a while, but when Jerry sells one of his plays, an old ex-girlfriend gets cast as the lead, leading to a double relapse.Merrily We Go to Hell snuck into theatres before the Production Code was enforced, as one might guess from that title (Jerry’s toast to the death drive). Joan announces they’re opening the marriage without any euphemisms—if a modern husband can have affairs, she suggests, why not his wife?55Her main prospect is a very young Cary Grant. The trivia of living space gain a doomed significance: Jerry follows just behind his father-in-law through the foyer of the Prentice estate, then slips on his heel at the threshold. Later Joan throws him out, folding herself against the apartment door, as if a great force were coming from the other side. Jerry does finally figure out that he loves this woman, rushing home for the birth of their baby; too late he learns that Joan miscarried it, and crawls into her arms like a child. It’s melodramatic. But I would not call it comforting.Of all Arzner’s films, Craig’s Wife rattles me most. She adapted it in 1936 from a stage play by George Kelly, the uncle of Grace, who was both a closeted gay man and an orthodox Catholic.66When he died in 1974, Kelly’s aristocratic family never invited his lover William Weagley to the funeral; he had to slip inside the chapel unannounced. The source material assumed a sternly moralistic tone, Kelly’s usual style, presenting the demon of materialism as a housewife with power. Harriet Craig dominates everyone in her life; she lies to protect her husband from a false murder charge not out of passion but the desire to protect her immaculate home. In Craig’s Wife the character becomes a tragic figure rather than a scheming villain, responding to a society that considers her independence pathological. Arzner even told George Kelly that Mr. Craig needed a mommy-domme: "I thought [he] should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs. Craig made a man of him." The author fumed: “That is not my play.”That murder intrigue disappears inside the melodrama of Craig’s Wife like a knife through a soap bubble. Arzner uses blinds and windows to slit apart light: Film noir without crime. She hired interior designer William Haines, a former movie idol forced out of the industry after refusing to hide his queerness, and they redecorated the Craig home to look theatrical, marmoreal, full of ancient Greek motifs, as forbidding as a tomb. “It is evidence of people living and breathing in the house which is rendered strange,” the film historian Pam Cook wrote. “The marks of a trunk having been pulled along the floor or someone having sat on a bed acquire a sinister meaning.” When Harriet’s friends and family abandon her, the star Rosalind Russell seems to falter, paralyzed by that stately bearing, as poise recedes from her masklike face. A lone tear glistens.No one knows exactly why Arzner stopped directing movies. She did some commercials,77Probably the only person who ended up in that field via Joan Crawford, a member of the Pepsi board. hosted a radio show, taught at UCLA (her most famous student being Francis Ford Coppola). A film with her friend Marlene Dietrich exploring “how war makes women hard and masculine” never went into production; a historical novel about early-20th-century Los Angeles remained unfinished. The only comprehensive interviews took place long after her quasi-retirement. While researching this piece, I came across a mysterious listing in the New York library system: Dorothy Arzner, photographic prints, one folder. I fantasized about looking over some film stills, maybe a cache of personal snapshots. When I opened the envelope, a pair of old publicity photos fell out.More compelling to me is a photograph of the teenage Arzner at the beach, wearing a thick black cloak, bending away from her long hair as if casting it into the sea. When Boze Hadleigh does bring up her sexuality during that Hollywood Lesbians interview, she doesn’t sound angry, only frustrated—dismayed that a shared experience can come to feel so different. The system Arzner worked under found her existence unfathomable. On the crest of La Quinta, a valley beneath mountains, the place where she died, there’s a motto: Gem of the Desert.
Anger is an Ally

After I was run over by a car, getting mad helped me find my way back to myself.

There’s not much I remember about 2009 besides getting run over on my bike by a drunk driver. It counts as run over if you hear they had to pull your unconscious body out from under the car.Almost seven years later, I still think about the accident. I wonder what else it touched, beyond the initial injuries. I get migraines that radiate out from the scar where my head hit the pavement. My memory sometimes pivots to places I’d rather not be. I wonder about the wiring in my brain for grief, happiness and anger—have my triggers changed with age, did something get shorted, or do we all, eventually, coax our responses into new constructions, albeit usually less violently?It was foggy, one of those warm flukes of a late November night, and I remember saying goodbye to some friends and pushing off the curb and out onto the street to start for home. It was maybe three and a half minutes from Koreatown to my apartment by bike. It was routine. My brother lived in the neighbourhood and I did the ride between our apartments at least once a week.I was reminded of the fact that it was foggy—the elevated importance of water droplets vibrating in air—much later, during the legal discovery process, one of the driver’s insurance company's many attempts to undermine how it was I got hurt. Fog really makes it anyone’s game, I found out: it can blur the rationale of why a sports sedan was tearing down a 40 km zone at upwards of 60 km. It can make hazy what should have been the one clarifying fact: that the driver would blow over the limit when he was breathalyzed at the scene, just after my body had been shuttled away in an ambulance. Fog seemed like a get-out-of-running-over-somebody-free card. The low lying cascade of tiny, warm water particles that, otherwise, make the city seem magic suddenly meant a lot more trouble for me.After the accident, I was forced to move back in with my parents for most of the winter. I couldn’t walk for a couple weeks, both of my eyes were swollen shut, my body was a mash of colour. As the swelling in my brain went down and my head trauma began to heal, I had the most lucid and terrifying dreams of my life. Road trips from when I was a kid extended and played out languidly over a dream-span of months: a hurricane that went right by a motel my family was staying at in South Carolina once, as if it had seen a NO VACANCY sign lit up and kept on down the highway. Or the time I accidentally locked myself in a gas station bathroom somewhere in New Hampshire and had to climb on the toilet tank to bash the window out with the conch shell that was the doorstop ‘cause I was sure my parents wouldn’t notice and leave.Some of the awful stuff seems canned now: monsters cobbled together from whatever I’d seen that day while being shuttled between doctors—a CT machine with teeth, or being stuck in a scene from Speed, a favourite I’d been comfort-watching. But the really bad dreams were vivid in how plainly my regular fears were played back to me—losing family and friends to almost inane accidents or watching them just keel over and die in front of me, in the middle of grocery shopping. It was all part of the process of my brain repairing itself, my doctor told me. The dreams got less terrifying over time, but the lucid, near tactile quality has never toned down.My waking anxiety was worse. People urged me to pursue legal action against the driver, secure some retribution if I could, but my sense of fight was flattened—I couldn’t bring myself to give a shit. Whether it was the wringing my body had been through or the mental unpacking my brain was still teetering toward, it felt like the visceral switch that would propel my next move had shorted.Rage inverted goes bad pretty quick—it festers fast into fear, then numbs further into apathy, which feels like a big, dulling cloud coiling around your brain. That November I felt muted in the gloom of grey days melting together, happy to live between the blankets in my parents’ guestroom. What fished me out was my friends. One flew across the country; another called me every day and when she finally saw me told me how crazy I looked, which was a relief—at least we were laughing again. More made the trip to the end of the subway line to haul me out of bed and to my parents’ couch, where my dad would insist on showing them the photos taken the day after the accident, pointing out all the colours that formed on my face. It was jarring and I needed it. To tell the story as far as I knew, over and over again, to be questioned, to hear things I wasn’t conscious for, like how the driver tried to speed away while I was trapped beneath his Honda Civic and the crowd rushed over to block his path. That someone was instructed to collect my ruined bike and put it behind my brother’s apartment. That I wouldn’t stop calling one of the emergency room doctors Shia LaBeouf when I woke up to my clothes being cut off me. Armed with everything I’d forgotten or that had rocketed out of my brain, my friends were magpies of the accident, giving me a narrative, something to reconcile.With this information, I was finding my way back to my anger. I decided to press charges. My dad and I went to the first scheduled hearing of my case at Toronto’s Old City Hall the following spring. I’d moved back into my west-end apartment and was back at work, not yet back on my bike. At the court house, no one showed up—not the the police on the scene, not the driver. My dad went hollering down the cavernous hall, calling out the names we knew only from the police report that was left with me at the hospital the night I got hit. When no one answered him, I felt the dull and heavy cloud still slogging around my brain, the last remnant of the accident’s fog, start to vaporize in defense of my father, incredulous that he had to do this.The anger I’d sidelined in exchange for detachment returned—that zeroed-in feeling of an eye-narrowed and razor-sharp awareness I recognized, once used on a runaway horse I stopped by standing still right in front of its bolting body. Or the sudden surprise at the calm that can come couched in anger, once a steady hand on my back that helped me to finally turn tail and walk away from a screaming, gaslighting ex as he backed me into an alley for another fight prompted by—at that point—just about anything. Anger can quietly highlight how the spectacle of a scene simply requires your removal from it, or it can stir you from a temporary state of suspension. At Old City Hall that day the damp lethargy I’d been content to live in like some swamp creature dissipated, and anger shot up in me like flares out of fog. I’d found it.*Anger takes energy. It takes energy to form, to maintain, and, most of all, to control. Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a member of Barack Obama’s committee on gun violence, has studied human aggression and violence for over twenty years. Despite the average brain being about the size of a grapefruit and accounting for only two percent of our body weight, it nonetheless consumes about twenty to thirty percent of the calories we digest. “It’s a very demanding organ,” he said. “And the part of our brain just behind our forehead, the prefrontal cortex, is in charge of executive functions—and one of those functions is emotion regulation. And the emotion people have the most difficulty controlling is anger, and the brain needs fuel to control anger.”We are programmed to avoid anger: it often indicates a threat, from which we as a species like to create some distance. Even on a cellular level, anger is uncomfortable. “If you think about anger on two axes,” said Dr. Bushman, “one axis being pleasant/unpleasant and the other being passive/active, anger is unpleasant and active. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases, your skin conductance increases—it activates you to respond. People don’t like it and usually want to get rid of it.”But what do you do with it? Psychologists like Bushman classify anger as an approach motivation, meaning that people don’t like it when they’re angry and want to fix it. There’s no doubt that anger has been the motivator behind tragedies too numerous to name, its energy harnessed with intent to harm others. Without channelling it into something productive, it can dissipate, becoming as noxious as an airborne toxin, accelerating prejudice into fear and worse.But at its best, anger is also a conduit. “Probably every [social] movement in history was fuelled by anger,” Bushman told me. “Civil rights, getting women the vote—all these movements are fuelled by anger. It motivates us to approach the problem and do something about it. Attack the problem if you will.”This has to do with what triggers our anger. It’s what some psychologists consider a “moral emotion,” a feeling associated with moral transgressions. Specifically, anger is linked to violations of autonomy. So when guarded and deeply personal notions such as justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, individual choice and liberty are threatened, anger lights our brain up like a pinball machine.For Zoe Dodd, a Toronto-based harm reduction worker and anti-poverty activist, anger is a reliable resource where money, social support and political leverage have oftentimes proved scarce. In Toronto, during John Tory’s first winter as mayor, the city would not call extreme cold advisories even when the temperature plunged, a record number of times, below minus-30 degrees Celsius. Without the advisory, emergency shelters could not open, and marginally housed and homeless people started freezing to death on the streets of the city. Still, emergency shelters didn’t open. It was the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—and Dodd—storming the mayor’s office and refusing to leave until the advisories went out that finally pressured the mayor to make the call.“I work with people where it’s life and death, it’s not a joke,” she told me. “I don’t want to be polite about it. It’s why you organize. It’s powerful—you’re unleashing power. That becomes a common bond and thread between people, especially people that are feeling incredibly oppressed, to come together and take on power with their anger.”Maybe that’s the difference between outright rage that obliterates and the driving energy that anger, thoughtfully directed, can provide—anger meant to bind, rather than rage that fractures. For women, for people marginalized, anger can be cause to accomplish much more and sustained to ration, to tide over. These are modes familiar to anyone who hasn’t been afforded the resources to know what it means to budget with what you have—and if what you have is anger, what are the limits?When New Brunswick’s Morgentaler clinic, the only private abortion clinic in the Maritimes, closed in July 2014, it was after a twenty-year battle with the provincial government for funding. “What do you say when someone asks for help accessing safe abortion services, and you have no answers?” said Jaden Fitzherbert, a former volunteer escort at the Morgentaler clinic. She remembered the desperation of women who contacted her when the clinic closed, a young mother of two who admitted to taking pills that were supposed to induce a miscarriage. “I was horrified. I was just so angry that people seeking abortion services were being forced to take pills and hope for the best. I was always pro-choice, but with the clinic closing, I suddenly found myself thrown into abortion rights activism.”Fitzherbert and other volunteers at the clinic, along with women in the community, all of them angry as hell, quickly organized. “When we decided to crowd-fund money,” she said, “we were really motivated by the utter disbelief that we were essentially crowd funding money to provide basic healthcare, something that the provincial government should have been doing the last two decades. We wanted to be perfectly clear: we were doing the government’s job, because they weren’t prepared or even willing to do it.”Morgentaler closed, but the money raised enabled a new private clinic to open with inclusive mandates driven by the community that fought for it.*Male anger so often seems to be reactionary, seething at the surface in anticipation of something it can contend with, conquer, emotionally lay waste to. Female anger has, conversely, learned to wait, to pick its moments carefully, to gain strength and rally in the interim by nature of its suppression. As women, we are conditioned to minimize it early on, to not argue, to lessen our reactions, and later, as self-protection, to deescalate, take the blame when it may not be ours. Dr. Ursula Hess, a psychology professor who specializes in the communication of emotions and the social factors—such as gender—that influence the process, recalled a study where women and men were asked to rate how much they trusted strangers they were paired up with based on their expressions. Men were found to be trustworthy whether smiling or showing anger—in some cases moreso when they were perceived as angry—whereas women showed a “significant drop in trust” when they displayed anger. “Anger was as positive as happiness when it comes to inspiring trust in a man, but it failed to do this for women, who were trusted more when they smiled or showed a neutral expression.”To be an angry woman is to already be seen as somehow suspect, implicitly radical. An angry woman is emotional, over the top, out of control, bitter, shrill, crazy, should calm down. In my own cross-examination during the trial for my accident, I was urged by my lawyer to keep a straight face against any accusations or cloying attempts at camaraderie. When it was over he practically hooted—I remember how thrilled he seemed with the notion that I had scared them, made them uncomfortable, all because I had buried my feelings so deep there was no way for them to be dredged up by twenty minutes of interrogation. In being absent of reaction I became a more convincing victim. Anger, maybe the most honest reaction I could have had, would have been my undoing in that situation. Our anger is caricatured back at us in order to mitigate it, and in the process, perpetuates the notion that women can’t just be angry. It becomes another thing mired in qualifiers.Undermining like this is meant to be negative, to strip anger of its usefulness, but it’s in this warping that it becomes something greater than the inherent spark that first created the sensation itself. Women’s anger should be seen as something greater than the sum of its pissed off parts—the rules applicable to our playing field shift so much that winning mostly means having to prove it over and over again. By the time we do, the result is something so concentrated, “anger” alone may not cut it. It’s a force, focused and active and sure of its footing—female anger gets shit done.But because women’s anger is seen as suspect, it is more often than not met with questions meant to shut it down, rather than dig to its root. We saw this with the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby cases, the women who’d come forward in each forced to present better reasons to be believed than their bodies alone. Pain, trauma, violation, poisoning—when projected on a female body, these often do not automatically equate to proof of harm. We see this in campus assaults across Canada and the United States, men with high tuitions, who we are told hold so much promise—are just ensconced in promise—supported and shielded by their institutions, afforded time and privacy to build their retaliation on the backs of the women they’ve harmed, women who bear both the brunt of media attention and institutionalized scrutiny because they threaten the antiquated systems that allowed their abuse. We see it in the continued appointment of judges who treat cases of sexual violence as opportunities to exercise tired tropes that do more to defend the perpetrators than give the victims opening themselves up any sense of equal footing from the outset. We see it in the walking caricature currently holding the highest office of power, the President of the United States.And when forced suppression of a woman’s anger becomes overwhelming to her because that woman won’t accept being complicit in her own erasure, there seems to always be an unspoken understanding that things will be made more difficult for her.*Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer and Inuk advocate, has spoken out candidly and frequently about Indigenous erasure. For this, predictably, she has been called loud and labeled angry. She has also been lauded for these same qualities. “I’m one of the angriest people I know,” she agrees. “And it’s finding a way to harness that without acting on it. And at the same time it’s very hard to think about peaceful revolution because usually, when things happen in nature, outside of nature, change comes through some act of violence.” Anger can be an ally that binds with deft hands the wounds caused by the caustic claws of lunatics.“The mountains are carved with giant glaciers," Tagaq says. "That in itself is an act of violence in a sense. A caribou gets killed by a wolf, that’s an act of violence, and humans, we’ve managed to pervert violence in a really obscure way. But social change, if you look at examples of it all over the earth, people don’t get violent over human rights unless they’re completely cornered. Inevitably when you try to cut off somebody’s mind from their heart there’s going to be a fight.”There are levels assigned to anger. Tied into the notions of white supremeacy, anything other than white anger becomes a stigma, something to be curbed outright—and if it can’t be, then lessened. Perverted this way, the natural response of anger gains warped qualifiers that impede women of colour and marginalized women in the freedom they have to access and wield it with the same visibility a white woman might. “People can only speak to their experiences unless they’re greatly empathetic, and I find what happens a lot when Indigenous women are trying to voice their opinion is when other women hear it, they want to see themselves as compassionate and forthright people that are fighting for their own rights. And we end up fighting for our rights like dogs fight for scraps, when in reality those events are not mutually exclusive,” says Tagaq.Scholar, activist, and author of “I AM An Angry Black Woman: Black Feminist Autoethnography, Voice, and Resistance,” Dr. Rachel Alicia Griffin, agrees. “When people of color express anger, the potential of our anger to fuel, inspire, and motivate is often lost because interpretations of our anger are confined to the dominant white imagination, and typically via white privilege white people experience our anger as only threatening and dangerous.”Part of what can make women’s anger so powerful is the different layers that form its intent, and the pressure it probably took to distill. And while anger may not be the ideal source, it’s not exactly in short supply. “There’s a never-ending pool of it,” Tagaq says, “from getting beeped at when you walk down the street to the refugee crisis.” But like any raw source, it needs to be refined. “If you can learn to siphon anger into something productive, you have an endless supply of gasoline for your vehicle.”*The anger I found that day, listening to my father shout his way through the courthouse, replaced my anxiety, and it was staying angry that steadied me through getting a lawyer and the process that followed. My anger worked like rations that fueled my resolve. Which was good, because nothing happens like on TV, and the back and forth between lawyers—cross-examinations, discoveries, inquiries, all nice ways of describing the process of buying more time for the prosecution to dig up what they consider to be dirt on you—takes a long time.Anger braced me against the personal attacks meant to smear my character, make me less reliable, a bad victim. Suddenly, riding horses since I was a kid had become the reason for the spot in my lower back where the vertebrae in my spine now tilted closer together, never mind that the surface bruising in the same area after the accident matched the front of a car’s bumper exactly. And the two classes I was finishing by correspondence following the accident? I failed them because I hadn’t ever given a shit about school—something the driver’s insurance company would argue after digging up some old transcripts, ignoring the opthalmologist’s post-accident report that advised me not to rule out the possibility of my retinas detaching due to head trauma, and that it might take some time for words to stop blurring into fuzzed blocks, or for me to even read again. Most of the physical reminders of the accident were gone by the time the legal process started, save for the scar on my forehead that would take plastic surgery to reduce. But every new allegation, every picture pulled off of social media since the accident—regular stuff like hanging out with my roomates or literally leaving the house—meant to rewrite my narrative completely, was a poke or prod right to the guts, still tender. Even the most self-assured person put into that situation would start to feel the tricky unraveling power of doubt’s deft fingers. But throughout it all anger was an ally that always showed up in the back of my head, lending reassurance that I wasn’t going crazy, that I knew what had happened to me.At its most simplified, anger provides us with information that something is happening that we don’t like. Like a divining rod your body can wield to home in on something deserving of your attention, anger can become a tool. For me, it was a spile to access power from a source in myself that let me stare steady back into the eyes of these lawyers who looked at the spot where my skull had split open and saw fault in the deep lines now scarring my forehead, who blamed the accident on me.I remained resolute, and we won.
‘We Take These Words to Empower Ourselves’: An Interview with Kristen J. Sollee

The author of Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive on intersectional feminism, modern-day witchcraft, and defining occulture. 

“As a kid, I was obsessed with the character Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and I’ve always been attracted to the villain: the dark and demonic, or the ‘demonic feminine’ character,” says Kristen J. Sollee. “Darkness that doesn’t have to be construed as evil, or what patriarchy views as evil. I always wondered, ‘why are these women perceived as so scary?’ so I think all these interests are aligned in some way.” In her book, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, Sollee examines how women who practice witchcraft have created a culture that empowers, not ridicules, mysticism. She defines witchcraft as an accumulation of a variety of occult practices practiced by a ‘witch:’ an identity that was once was thrust upon women to demean, shame and persecute, but has been transformed into a cultural symbol that promotes sex-positivity and feminine power.After poring over dense historical documents on the history of witches and various practices, Sollee wrote a book that is a hybrid of sorts. She wields her journalism background in her careful application of feminist academic scholarship for important theorization on race, gender and queer studies. It also contains a concise account of the complicated history of witches from the medieval to the modern age, including Q&As with current practitioners. “I feel like a curator in many ways,” she says of the book’s unconventional structure. “I wanted other voices to speak loudly, and I don’t think you can do that when you simply incorporate quotes into a narrative.” By referencing recent political events, such as the 2016 U.S. election, Sollee traces the experiences of contemporary pop culture notables like LA Slutwalk organizer and model Amber Rose to demonstrate the lineage of witchcraft to contemporary feminism and sexuality.In 2011, Sollée co-edited the anthology Can I Play With Madness: Metal, dissonance, madness and alienation, and has published several academic articles on heavy metal, sexuality and gender play. When she isn’t running Slutist, the online portal for sex-positive, popular culture and feminist criticism she founded in 2013, she teaches in the Gender Studies department at The New School in New York City and curates the annual festival The Legacy of the Witch, featuring sex-positive musical and performance artists and occult practitioners. “I must add that this book is about a community that is bigger than me,” she tells me over lunch at a Brooklyn diner. “I really wanted to take a step back and be as objective as possible and keep my personal asides to a minimum.” While she notes that she is telling a story that has gone on for several thousands of years, “I’d like to think that I offer different ways in approaching these issues.”Laina Dawes: In addition to your childhood fascination, and your work as a feminist, what made you buckle down and write a book on witches? Kristen J. Sollee: Well, I’ve always worked in the realm of gender, art and culture, whether it be visual art, music or fashion or film as a freelance journalist, but I’ve always been fascinated by the occult and my mother is a witch. She doesn't use that word, but she is intuitive, and I’ve experienced a lot of mystical occurrences because of her. My dad’s a staunch atheist, so their marriage didn’t last very long! There are a lot of people in my family on my mother’s side who are Catholic and they have their own secret practice, but they would never use that word because it is very sensitive/pejorative to them. So growing up, I had that interest and an interest in the aesthetic surrounding it.I showed your book to one of my students, a young black woman. One of the first things she asked me when she saw the cover was about your definition of feminism. Just to elaborate on how you were careful about how you inserted your opinion within the book, I thought It was important that you made it clear that feminism was defined in Witches, Sluts, Feminists as intersectional. That was central and of the utmost importance to me. Obviously, I was limited to my personal experience—I am a white woman—but there were so many witches, feminists and theorists of color that were extremely important to me and my continued growth as a feminist, so how could they not be part of the story? Within the history of witches and witchcraft, you cannot separate them. There was even a hashtag created: #Solidarityisforwhitewitches. I think that a lot of the aesthetic out there that focuses on what witches looked like in relation to Salem—even though we don’t really know, there is this notion that witches had dark hair, pale skin and blue eyes, even on Instagram if you look at the images within the common witch-centric accounts. But that is not the history.Look at Beyoncé’s pregnancy photos and her music videos, and then there is Azealia Banks, who has publicly stated she is a practicing witch. Currently there are no white women doing that. On the feminist side and the witch side, it is very necessary right now to acknowledge women of color, as they are the leading activists in both realms. To write this book and not have it be as intersectional as I could make it would be illogical. I must say though that the book is not marketed as being an intersectional feminist book and race is not included on the back cover, because that is not for me to define. I think that doing so would be problematic—to position yourself as the arbiter of intersectionality.The first time I heard the term "occulture" was in your book. What is your definition and how does it differ to what we consider as identity politics?Well, occulture describes the how the occult is perceived within popular culture and the culture that has developed around that, in relation to witchcraft and intuition that can be considered in both theistic and nontheistic ways. This was also something I wanted to ensure was in this book, as there are a lot of people who don’t believe anything beyond science that are witches, and then there are the more spiritual witches that skeptical people would call “woo hoo” witches. I wanted the book to be open to all thoughts about the occult. There are many sects within occulture, different belief systems and ways of thinking about witchcraft: there are Wiccans, voodoo practitioners, fairies, satanists, the O.T.O (Ordo Templi Orientis, an international fraternal and religious organization influenced by the Early Witchcraft Movement) and ceremonial magicians. I do think it does function similarly to identity politics, in the sense that there are all kinds of fractures and infighting, so what I was trying to do was not to focus on one singular practice, but instead the community that can hopefully envelop all of them under this goal to demystify and to destigmatize the witch as how it is related to women.This book is a continuation of your work as a lecturer of fourth-wave feminism. Yes.My understanding is that fourth-wave feminism is defined, in part, as feminism in the age of technology. As queer and trans women and women of colour often experience marginalization within “real-life” communities and are more likely to join online occultures and other niche communities, would occultures fall under the fourth-wave feminist umbrella? Absolutely. Despite me teaching a class on on fourth-wave feminism, it’s still a debate as to what it is. It’s so nebulous, but really it acknowledges the Internet as a driving mechanism and force in feminist analysis and thought. It’s messy, but there has to be a shift as feminist discourse, and as it stands now, is different than it was in the 1990s, which is referred to as third-wave feminism. In 2008 Jessica Valenti wrote that the next wave of feminism is online, and I think she was one of the first people to acknowledge this shift. Within the book, I discuss digital activism and digital mystics that use the collective consciousness to promote their social justice activism.That’s why it's interesting that the young women of colour I know who identify as witches are totally reliant on online communities and finding information online in order to find a community. Technology definitely helps in people finding out about the history and historical practices of witchcraft. And yes, a lot of this is totally self-directed (through online interactions). I feel like the witches that are the most influential online are queer women of color. Right now the website The Hood Witch is, in my opinion, the biggest witch “portal” which really crosses race and gender lines. It speaks to the age bracket of 18-40 and maybe older, but it hits that Instagram, millennial generation.Your discussions surrounding how the term “slut” signifies empowerment were illuminating, but I still felt some hesitance in introducing it as a descriptor in defining myself in a sex-positive way. You do mention how racialized sexism and sexualized racism do alter how “slut” is perceived, particularly among women of colour.The reason I added it was because of the years of conversations I’d had with organizers of the various Slutwalks around the country. Women of colour in particular often acknowledged the difference between me and them being called a slut—similar to the difference when someone calls a transwoman versus a cis woman a slut. For identities that are more marginalized and more likely to be victims of violence, it is much harder to claim a word that in some ways seems like it gives permission for this violence to be acted upon you. That was another point in which I tried to look at all the angles, because for some people, using the word is simply untenable. You simply cannot use the word in a positive way. Maybe in your mind—but in reality, it is off the table.But I felt that it was important to put it on the table. Sexual violence is so prevalent that it’s almost irresponsible not to note how this word is still so oppressive to certain groups more than other groups. So, let’s not be naive about it. There is so much more ability for white women to work within that realm (in the empowering usage of that word) than for others. And that has been one of the criticisms of Slutwalk. I have all of my students go online and read all the critiques of it, because I want to ensure that they see all of the angles to this activism, but there is still great power to be had when we take these words to empower ourselves.However, there are plenty of women of color who freely use slut to define themselves—they are sex workers, burlesque dancers and other artists who are proud to be defined as that, so again, it’s also not fair to essentialize the usage as being negative for all women. And there are white women who are also opposed to reclaiming it.You mention the book The Malleus Maleficarum, written in 1486, and describe it as “ye olde medieval BDSM erotica” because of the depictions of the sexual interactions between witches and incubus devils. You write that since that book was published, stereotypes about the deviant sexuality of women who do not fit into conventional societal categories still exist. Erotica for the sexual stimulation of the readers is commonplace, so is the stigma around such materials. Do you ever see that changing within your lifetime?Well I hope within my lifetime—maybe in sixty years if I’m still alive! Obviously right now we are living in a really interesting moment, where there is an admitted sexual assailant in the White House, and I don’t know how far back that has put American society. On the other hand, there is pushback against that, and conversations about sexual assault are more commonplace than when I was growing up. That is what is great about being a young woman today, as they are participating in all of these great discussions to really understand what behaviour is not okay, which is a lot better than I could say when I was their age.And they are given more of an allowance to say “yes” or “no.” To give their opinion.Yes! I didn’t even know that saying “no” was okay when I was a kid. There are more open conversations about consent.In popular music culture, including rock n’ roll and heavy metal, it's always been questionable as to whether the occult is used as a marketing tool in offering provocative imagery or whether the artists are channeling their spiritual beliefs through their music. A lot of that discussion is centered on the male occultists, like Aleister Crowley, all of these male figures, but really the female or the gender non-conforming or anyone who doesn’t fall under the gender binary are more powerful. Women and queer folks are using real rituals and their actual practices are being infused into their art, which is different than what bands, such as Motley Crue were offering in their early years. However, some metal bands, like Watain, are real Satanists, and actually do rituals onstage. From what I know and from friends I know who tour with them, they are serious. But you would never really know, because there are so many bands in which it is used as shock value.In terms of the visual imagery and whether it’s authentic, you could say the same thing about Beyoncé’s [use of Yoruban deity imagery for her pregnancy photoshoot] outfits.Definitely. What was interesting to me was the response from black folks who had challenged her “wokeness.” It seemed like those Instagram pictures legitimized her blackness. Well, some people did call her out, like Azealia Banks, who accused her of using the aesthetic of her religious practice to make money, and I saw some other people of colour who are witches who also questioned her look, as Beyoncé is super-Christian. But it could possibly be that she is getting rid of that and turning to a spiritual practice that better suits her, so who knows? I feel that there is still a lot of doubt within the music scene—outside of heavy metal —which is, “is this for real?” But because of the number of Internet communities that are discussing the occult I hope these questions will be answered.