Hazlitt Magazine

'Righteous Fury Helps Me Process': An Interview with Kate Harding

Talking about rape culture, the overblown fear of false accusations, and using humour to make the unthinkable thinkable with the author of Asking For It. 

Forgive the Lateness of My Reply, I Have a Brain Tumour

At 36, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour while overworked in the unstable world of academia—sometimes when systems fail, they fail all at once.

The Terror of the Archive

I might be, in many ways, a different person now than when I signed up for Ashley Madison more than a decade ago. And yet, I can’t escape reminders of the ways in which I may be very much the same.

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‘Righteous Fury Helps Me Process’: An Interview with Kate Harding

Talking about rape culture, the overblown fear of false accusations, and using humour to make the unthinkable thinkable with the author of Asking For It. 

I am not capable of being objective about Kate Harding. She's one of my best friends, and one of the funniest, most clear-headed, most uncompromising feminist writers working today—which means that, on a cultural level, she's one of your best friends, too. So when I say that her book Asking for It, which was released August 25, is simultaneously an unstinting indictment of our cultural attitudes about women and sex and a paradoxically hilarious page-turner, I can see why you might be skeptical, but it's true.Asking for It is a gimlet-eyed look at rape culture—the constellation of fears, biases, and deeply ingrained beliefs that make us excuse rapists and treat their victims like criminals. In the three years since Kate started working on the book, we have seen this culture in action over and over, on the local and national levels; we have had these conversations dozens of times. But Asking for It doesn't just read like a retread of the sharpest tweets about Steubenville, about Rolling Stone, about Emma Sulkowicz, about Bill Cosby. Harding zooms out to look at how every part of society—our ingrained racism, our stinginess about reproductive rights, the way we train our police, the things we watch on TV—is complicit in facilitating rape. And unlike the justice system, she doesn't let the culprits off the hook.However, I am not capable of being objective, as I said. I’ll let Harding, who also co-wrote The Book of Jezebel and is a columnist for Dame, speak for herself, and you'll see what I mean.*Jess Zimmerman: Let's start by talking about the phrase “rape culture.” You say in the introduction that you're kind of resistant to it, and I think other people are resistant to it too. Why does it get people's backs up? What made you decide there was no way around using that phrase?Kate Harding: I mean, if you haven't thought about it very hard, or read feminist takes on the subject, the idea that we're living in a rape culture sounds completely ridiculous. Nobody is pro-rape! And we're not in an area where, say, mass rape is used as a weapon of war. But once you look a little closer, you see that actually, although we say we think rape is the second worst crime after murder, we don't treat it that way at all. And we don't, as a culture, show any real interest in punishing rapists or preventing predators from finding other victims. Not the most common sexual predators, anyway. We're super keen to punish the stereotypical stranger rapist who uses a weapon—if we can find him—but that's a tiny fraction of actual rapes.JZ: Well, and it's also worth looking at why we think (or say we think) rape is the second worst crime. You make this point really strongly in the book—we say we hate rape, as a culture, for the reasons we should hate rape, i.e., that it's a violation of someone's right to body autonomy. But we act like we only care about preserving women's purity.KH: Yes, great point.JZ: It's your point! I'm just stealing it.KH: When you scratch the surface, you see that we still have this really Victorian—if not medieval—view of rape. When an “innocent” victim (i.e., a virgin) is sullied with the filth of rape (i.e., sex), it's the end of the world. But when someone who has a consensual sex life, on her own terms, has her bodily autonomy violated, we're a lot more likely to respond with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.JZ: And that's not even guesswork, since politicians and other public figures have EXPLICITLY said that they basically only care if it's a religious teenage virgin ruined by a stranger. Preferably a brown stranger. Obviously a white virgin.KH: Yes, exactly. I feel very conflicted when I see men like this kid from Baylor get convicted. Part of me is so glad that for once, a rapist received consequences from the justice system, but I can also make an educated guess that it wouldn't have happened if he'd been a white man who raped a young black woman.Basically, we're still conflating rape and sex, and acting like the crime is putting a dick inside a “good” girl who's saving herself for some imagined husband, as opposed to penetrating another human being's body without their consent.JZ: Occasionally while reading the more infuriating quotes in your book, I thought about the last book we discussed together, Naomi Wolf's Vagina, which also weirdly privileged the act of penetration with a penis, like it was this especially significant thing that somehow brings the vagina into the fullness of its potential. People are weirdly hung up on which genital goes where, which has a lot of effects, including the eliding of male rape.KH: And then that makes it hard to talk about rape culture as it applies beyond penis-in-vagina sex... JINX!JZ: Jinx, poke, owe me a discussion of rape culture.KH: EVERYONE CHECK OUT MY INTERVIEW WITH SERIOUS LITERARY PUBLICATION HAZLITT.But yes, it is worth noting that as far as we know, women are raped at much higher rates than men—and trans women at much higher rates than cis women. But there are still millions of male victims dealing with an entirely different kind of stigma. And rape culture, by focusing so much on the purity of innocent white girls, shoves their stories and needs aside.The thing that brings it home for a lot of people is talking about rape in the military. The percentages of military women raped are much higher than the percentages of men. One anonymous survey found that 23 percent of women and four percent of men in the military reported unwanted sexual contact. But in terms of sheer numbers, more men than women are raped in the military, because there are so many more of them in the first place.Also, I like to remind people that men are much more likely to be raped than to be the victims of a false rape report.The best way to get people to believe you were raped is to also get murdered by the same guy.JZ: To me, the thing that makes “rape culture” the most apt phrase is that it's not just the way we condone the act of rape, or make excuses for it, or put the onus of responsibility for rape where it doesn't belong, or let rapists go free. I mean, it's all of that, but it's also the million sub rosa ways that our culture promotes the idea that women's bodies are public property.You talked about a police survey in which most—but, crucially, not nearly all—police officers gave the right answers to things like, “If a woman is wearing a short skirt, is she asking for rape?” But the thing about the pervasiveness and perniciousness of rape culture is that even if you know the right answers, part of you has been trained to think that if a woman is being obviously female in public, it's open season.KH: Yeah, most police officers knew the right answers to give to a sociologist measuring their “rape myth acceptance,” but a) NOT ALL, and b) giving the right answer doesn't mean you'll actually put the right answer into practice when investigating a rape case.JZ: I guess my point is that rape culture means that's true of basically everyone. Obviously it's worst with police and, like, ER staffers, and lawyers, and the people who have the ability to re-traumatize a victim or dissuade them from pursuing a case. But just in general, even when we know the right answers, rape culture is this devil on the shoulder. Compare it with the findings that a third of college men will admit to committing sexual assault as long as you don't call it that.KH: There are amazing parallels with the way white people deal with racism. Like, most of us will say it's terrible, unjust, not something we practice ourselves. But in addition to otherwise thoughtful people who resist thinking about micro-aggressions they might be committing, a lot of white people will flat out use the n-word, and then say they didn't mean it in a racist way. They'll say, “I'm not racist, but I just believe we should live separately.” And that's the same shit with rape culture. Nobody admits to being pro-rape, but we're all knocking ourselves out to defend rapists, smear victims, and sow doubt about EVERY FUCKING INSTANCE OF RAPE where the victim isn't beaten within an inch of her life, or actually killed. The best way to get people to believe you were raped is to also get murdered by the same guy.JZ: Yes! We're like a bunch of fish going, “Oh no, I hate breathing water, none of that for me.”KH: Exactly. So we have this overblown fear of false accusations. Like, they are scary things! For anyone! But it's a fear that should be parallel to, like, dying in a plane crash—and we act as though it's as common as dying in a car crash.JZ: I loved how you dealt with false accusations in the book, because it was something I genuinely had not put together: that the actually false accusations sound more like our cultural idea of, pardon me, “rape-rape.” Because nobody makes up stories for attention that will just get them dismissed and disbelieved and maybe insulted! That'd be like having Munchausen's and telling everyone you have fibromyalgia. “Oh, this gets taken seriously, this definitely won't cause people to doubt my veracity and moral fiber.”KH: Guys think that if a woman they have sex with takes a notion to accuse them of rape, all she has to do is walk into a police station and lie, and suddenly his life is ruined. In fact, it's the opposite all around. As soon as he tells police it was consensual, there's every chance the whole thing gets dropped. Hell, there's every chance that the police will bully her into dropping it before they even have to go investigate. And meanwhile, when a woman who WAS raped reports it, she gets investigated like a criminal subject. Of course someone looking for attention and sympathy isn't going to say, “This guy I met at a bar last night forced himself on me.” She's going to say she was abducted at gunpoint by a masked stranger, or something equally dramatic and difficult to investigate thoroughly.JZ: Totally. The idea that women would report consensual sex as rape just for “revenge” presupposes that reporting causes more problems for the accused than for the accuser. And with rape, that's just not how it plays out. (I mean, at some point in the future I hope that reporting will not cause problems for the accuser. And at that time, I still do not expect a cascade of false rape reports, because contrary to popular opinion, women are not all monsters.)KH: As far as fucked-up attitudes being to blame, the worst version of that is when police believe a false stranger rape story and basically keep pushing a victim to accuse a specific man. That's how Gary Dotson, one of the first people to be exonerated by DNA, ended up in prison. Cathleen Crowell Webb reported an anonymous stranger rape, and they basically shoved mug shot books in front of her and made her pick. She didn't have to pick, of course, and could have come clean at any time—I'm not making excuses for her—but it takes a village to actually put an innocent man in prison, basically.JZ: But letting a guilty man off the hook so he can go rape again—it only takes one jerk to do that.KH: This idea that women will make false accusations at the slightest provocation—like, because we're pissed that some one night stand never called—evinces such a horrifically bleak view of women. Like, you shouldn't even have to be a feminist to give that two seconds of thought and go, “That's really fucked up. Most people, including lady-people, would not lie to police in hopes of ruining someone else's life.”JZ: Okay so can I play Devil's Advocate for a second here? In the sense that I want to ask you a question I know the answer to, but that I think it would be useful to discuss explicitly. And also in the sense that I am wearing a trilby and a goatee.KH: You can, as long as you send trilby pics.Someone who's not sexually experienced has seen all these images of people getting it on that are wordless and quite literally choreographed. Nobody has to speak while fucking, if they're play-fucking according to a script. In the real world, telepathy doesn't work that well.JZ: One point that you underscore a few times is that most men who commit sexual assault know exactly what they're doing, and will continue doing it as long as they can get away with it. But does rape culture actually make it harder for men to understand what they're doing wrong? Like, they're getting constant messages that consent is given once, usually nonverbally, and applies indefinitely thereafter, and women's bodies are public goods. And all they've got standing against that is common sense and empathy. I find that most people who can get away without having those choose to do so.KH: I'd turn it around and say rape culture makes it easier for rapists to claim they didn't know, and for non-rapists to think that's plausible.JZ: Oh it 100 percent does. But does it also make it easier for people who are merely egomaniacal doofuses to actually not know any better?KH: I mean, maybe I'm really Pollyanna here, but I think most people would not want a sexual partner who is limp or unresponsive, let alone visibly suffering.JZ: My assessment of how dumb men are capable of being is perhaps too towering.KH: I don't think “enthusiastic consent,” let alone “no means no” is actually a very high bar to clear. But I feel like so much of this what-if? conversation is driven by people who must not be very sexually experienced, you know?JZ: Yeah, you note in the book, “Real people having real sex deal with this shit”—i.e., negotiating ongoing consent—“all the time.” And I wrote in the margin, “This is the one thing I might feel comfortable pointing fingers at porn for.” Because I am pro-sex-worker and I find the whole blame-porn-for-shitty-attitudes-about-sex thing extremely boring and bad. But, why doesn't more mainstream porn show people negotiating consent? IT'S SO HOT.KH: With you on all of the above, but I'd add that it's not just porn. Romantic comedies don't show people negotiating consent, either. So someone who's not sexually experienced has seen all these images of people getting it on (implied or otherwise) that are wordless and quite literally choreographed. Nobody has to speak while fucking, if they're play-fucking according to a script. In the real world, telepathy doesn't work that well.Anything where people are making out and falling backward into bed to a swelling (ha) soundtrack—like, sometimes that happens. But sometimes, you stand up to go to the bedroom and fall over and bust your late ‘90s-era laptop screen to the tune of $2,000, and then there's talking again. (ASK ME HOW I KNOW.)JZ: I was thinking this in regards to the hotly contested Game of Thrones rape scene—the first hotly contested GoT rape scene I should say—which you discussed in the book. The director essentially does a fucking PowerPoint on all the subtle clues that Cersei is actually into it even though she said she wasn't, and I'm like, “Man, how hard would it have been to just have her say 'I want you'?”KH: RIGHT! When we see an actual discussion of consent in pop culture, it's usually the woman saying “No,” and the man pressuring her.JZ: I think people actually WANT to preserve the illusion that good sex is one degree off from rape.KH: Yeah, I think I agree with that, and it's super scary.JZ: Maybe partly so they can point to that and say “so how was he ever to know,” and maybe partly because you get the messages that women are public utilities essentially in parallel to the rest of your sexual and romantic development.KH: I mean, I do want to throw in here that there are lots of ways to gauge enthusiasm that aren't necessarily verbal. I'm not advocating ONLY Antioch College-style negotiations. But yeah, these are the things that create that social license for rapists to operate. Non-rapey guys think hot sex is wordless and a hair off from rape, so how can they blame a guy for not knowing?JZ: I agree that it doesn't always need to be verbal! But if you're feeling like things are in any way ambiguous, it doesn't actually HURT anything to ask, “Do you like that?” It is, in fact, extremely hot, and maybe that's just my personal preference, but I've heard a lot of women express that same opinion. Plus, it keeps you from accidentally raping someone, if that's even a thing.KH: No, I think it's hot, too—we don't leave room in this culture for the possibility that it COULD be hot.And yes, sometimes you have to use your goddamn words. If your partner is cutting off circulation to your left foot, just grimacing isn't going to solve your problem.JZ: Most people wouldn't think twice about saying, “Get off my foot,” or doing so if asked.KH: I use that as an example because it's the kind of thing people don't often think of when claiming that verbally checking in with your partner will kill the mood.JZ: You're totally allowed to have preferences, re: whether someone cuts off circulation in your foot.KH: Exactly. But not whether someone penetrates your body.JZ: Whether someone puts part of them inside part of you, though...KH: Jinx, poke, have another rape joke.Seriously, though, there are often logistical issues during sex, and people talk about them as necessary without throwing tantrums over the mood being killed.JZ: I am thoroughly convinced by your argument that people who disbelieve this either aren't having sex, or aren't thinking seriously about what sex is like in real life, or possibly have a pernicious commitment to the idea that sex is rape-lite.Shifting gears a little: this book took longer than you expected to write, mainly because rape culture kept happening. So you're originally envisioning being steeped in this stuff for six months, and it ended up being... two years? Three? HOW DID YOU COPE?KH: Sometimes I coped, and sometimes I didn't. Righteous fury helps me process a lot of this stuff, as does knowing I can help contextualize it in ways that will make other people furious. But there were definitely times when I had to take extended breaks. Like, “Oops, I didn't write anything for almost a month and couldn't bear to look at my Google Alerts.” Then the fury would take over again, and I'd get back to work.JZ: You have a lot of genuine laugh lines in here. Is humor partly a way of making the unthinkable thinkable? Or is it just impossible to take on this level of hypocrisy without mocking it?KH: Both. I mean, my immediate reaction to so much of this stuff is, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” So that informs everything.A lot of it is just that I am the type of person who locks onto the absurdity in almost any situation, and intense emotion often goes hand-in-hand with absurdity. So this is how I naturally write about difficult subjects, but that's part of what made me want to write about it. I know I can frame this in a way that people find a lot more readable than academic feminist theory. Although, of course, there will always be people who think I'm too glib and swear too much. They're not wrong about the swearing.JZ: Yes they are.KH: I'm not saying all swearing should be excised, just that I've never published anything where I couldn't have taken a few “fucks” off the top and made it more polished.JZ: But you had no fucks to give.KH: I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
Rosner - Yard Sales

More than anything else, a yard sale is a crucible for the determination of value; an arena for extreme microeconomics, raw and uncut. There’s no regulation, there’s no pricing standard. It’s just you, your possessions, your wallet, your desires, and your soul…

More than anything else, a yard sale is a crucible for the determination of value; an arena for extreme microeconomics, raw and uncut. There's no regulation, there's no pricing standard. It's just you, your possessions, your wallet, your desires, and your soul.-Helen Rosner, Racked: "Everything Is For Sale: Life Along the Longest Yard Sale in the World"
Forgive the Lateness of My Reply, I Have a Brain Tumour

At 36, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour while overworked in the unstable world of academia—sometimes when systems fail, they fail all at once.

The day I found out I had a brain tumour, I tripped and fell. It was, as the kids say, an epic fall. I was wearing a rather tight dress and heels, so there was no possible graceful recovery. It happened just inside the door of the building my office is in, in front of the registrar and all the people coming and going. A crowd gathered around me, and I laughed it off, blaming the ring of plastic trash wrapped around my feet.When I got to my office upstairs, I told my friend about the fall, and we explored the end result of ripped tights and skinned knees, joking as you do in the commiseration of daily annoyances.“And I have a brain tumour,” I told him, as the end to my story.I told almost nobody else the news, internalizing the stress and anxiety, pretending whenever I could that I was fine and life was continuing on as usual. Six months later, my knee still hasn’t healed, one of the possible side effects of the little lesion growing in my head. Maybe it’s time to tell my secret before my body tells it for me.*Getting sick in your thirties means you’re not following the narrative correctly. I figured I’d done enough of that already; in what the Dixie Chicks called “taking the long way around,” I’d spent most of my adult life in school, avoiding long-term commitments such as a steady job, buying a house, and having kids in favour of aiming for one of my ever-shifting professional goals. I’d racked up substantial student loan debt and did contract work four months at a time, spending many of my leisure hours at bars reviewing new country bands. I was struggling through the aftermath of getting divorced, trying to figure out how to start over, which meant I had to move into a tiny apartment that could barely contain my collection of books and instruments. A successful week for me meant I had vacuumed up the cat hair and prepared all of my lunches before going to bed on Sunday.When I was diagnosed, I was teaching three university courses, researching for a PBS documentary, filing at an artist tax office, copyediting a journal, and booking a music venue. And those were just the paying jobs—I also worked for free as the editor of a quarterly publication on folk music, wrote regular reviews for a music website, and was starting a festival. I had three books in progress, and I was just starting to take lessons on pedal steel guitar. I went to ballet classes and my book club; I tried to keep up with House of Cards and Downton Abbey. My friends dropped by with their babies and accused me of living the “single” girl’s life, not knowing that I was in pyjamas at 10 a.m. because I hadn’t torn myself away from the computer for hours in order to accomplish the simple task of getting dressed.So I and many others attributed my encroaching health oddities to stress. In the fall, I lost my vision at some point every day for three weeks straight, and suffered debilitating migraines. “Probably too much computer time,” came my friends’ sage advice. Then my period stopped. “Must be because your hormones are shifting,” said my doctor. “You are 36 after all.”*Historically, women have had a tough time getting anyone to believe they’re sick. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot documents the brief but serious ordeal of Lacks, a poor black woman whose cancer cells, known as HeLa, were the first to reproduce outside the human body and became the basis of modern medical research: “Henrietta told her doctors several times that she thought the cancer was spreading, that she could feel it moving through her, but they found nothing wrong with her.” By the time she insisted on being admitted to the hospital, Henrietta appeared to be producing new tumours “daily,” on her lymph nodes, hip bones, and labia.Things haven’t changed much since then. I’d go into my appointments wanting to say “I’m a doctor too!” while conveniently leaving out the fact that I’m a doctor of country music, but hoping nonetheless that they might take the title as an opportunity to give me a little more time or information. I also hoped that they might believe me when I said I knew better than they when something was wrong with my body.A “feeling” that something is wrong isn’t good enough, and that’s compounded by test results that might confirm a doctor’s suspicions. I went through a series of blood tests in the fall that came back “pristine” (my doctor’s word), reinforcing the belief she probably had that I was overreacting to my constantly itchy legs and sudden intolerance for the cold. I’m from Alberta, I wanted to tell her. Winter is my jam.*So it wasn’t until a bleak day in January, when I took some books back to the library and could barely walk the block home that I decided maybe it was time to really take action. I started down that scary tunnel of Googling symptoms, discovering that I might have MS, Parkinson’s, or something worse.I decided not to tell anyone what was going on. My family was across the country; why worry them with potentially serious possibilities that may never manifest? My partner was concerned, but going through his own set of problems that distracted him and distanced us from each other. We didn’t live together, so he didn’t see it on a daily basis, never mind that at the best of times, our work schedules left us collapsed in exhaustion at the end of every week.I got to know the quickest public transit routes to the hospitals around town. I got to know myself pretty well, too. I worked on copyedits in hospital waiting rooms, answered student emails during ultrasounds.But those emails were piling up. “Gillian, have you sent the proofs to the guest editors yet?”What proofs? I would wonder blankly.“Gillian, we need a profile on Trisha Yearwood now. She is showing up to the Garth Brooks interview in 45 minutes.” That one arrived as I was downtown just coming out of an appointment.“Miss, have you posted the essay assignment yet?” “What’s the cover charge for tonight’s show?” “Do you know where the T4 for Ronald Smith’s 2013 file is?” “Why haven’t you called home in a week? Are you okay?”*There was a reason I was working five jobs.As a sessional instructor in a small university music department, I was always aware that my job could disappear in a flash. At times, it nearly did, as upper-level politics and course migration threatened to shut down our whole program. The end always hovered at the fringes of my mind, though, so I took extra courses, and applied for any job I was remotely qualified to do. It meant that some years were pretty lean, while others, like this one, seemed to burst with opportunity. I didn’t turn anything down on the assumption that it could lead somewhere better, or that I might be without my teaching job very soon.My fear wasn’t misplaced: the number of tenure-track positions at universities across North America has shrunk. Figures differ depending on the type of institution, but anywhere from 25 to 70 percent of instructors are part-time adjuncts. In my field, there was only one tenure-track job posted in Canada last year. Pay typically ranges from $2,000 to $7,000 per course, again depending on the institution. If that isn’t precarious enough, most instructors have to wait until just a few weeks before the term begins to find out which courses, if any, they are teaching, what their schedule is, and how many students they have. And at any time, a tenured professor can take away or be assigned a course that once belonged to an adjunct.Between paying off the debt from taking on joint expenses after my divorce and intermittent health benefits, a sick leave left me in vulnerable territory. While my seniority would technically remain intact if I left for a semester, a new instructor could come in, teach my classes, build her own seniority, and leave no place for me to return. I wouldn’t have much ground as a contract employee to demand my job back.My prognosis terrified me mainly because I thought I would have to leave work mid-semester. My savings are paltry, and a three-to-four-week recovery from brain surgery might be all I could manage without income. What if there were complications? I hoped the surgery might be scheduled for the summer, when there was no work available to me and I wouldn’t have to pay a substitute,11While I don’t know for sure if the department would provide and pay for a substitute for a longer-term leave, usually if we have to miss classes for a week or two, my fellow instructors and I cover for substitutes out of our own paycheques. but that meant I would also have no health benefits—a “perk” I was lucky to attain over the last few years any time I was bestowed a four-month, three-course package.I had not planned for this at all. Not now.*I discovered that MRIs are like 20th-century avant-garde music, wondering as I laid in the narrow tube with instructions not to move and nothing to do but keep a finger poised over the panic button if anyone had composed a piece from the sounds they emit. I dug those sounds. You can find the positive in these experiences.My doctor called. “Your CT scan came back,” she said. I was standing at a streetcar stop waiting to go to a kidney ultrasound. “You have swelling in your pituitary area, so I’m going to order another MRI.”In between tests, I would stop in to see her. The first MRI showed no signs of MS. The leg ultrasound came back clear. A lump in my kidney had gotten smaller. These were good things.The day I found out, my doctor telephoned early in the morning.“Well, I looked at your MRI results,” she said, “And really, you seem fine. Are you still having problems?”“Yes,” I answered.“Okay. You do indeed have a tumour on your pituitary gland.” That was the news I was expecting to hear. “It’s likely not cancer. We call it a micro adenoma.” I could barely keep up with her pace, even though I could tell from her voice that she was nervous. “So I’m going to send you to the specialist, and they’ll probably just put you on some medication. I don’t think we’ll need to do radiation or surgery at this point, but it’s not for me to decide. I’m sure you’ll be fine on the medicine. So does that sound good? Do you have any questions?” I found myself in the position of trying to reassure her, so I didn’t ask anything. Even though I’d expected the news, I was spinning. It was the weirdest call I’d ever received.When I hung up, I saw it had only lasted two minutes.*Being sick often feels all the more awful because of the work of telling everyone you feel fine. There’s no room to worry yourself, even if you wanted to. It also means you have to talk a lot. I’m not a big talker—I’m quite happy to spend much social time off to the side observing, or to have my one-on-ones permeated by comfortable silence—but I’m not getting those opportunities anymore.There was no way I could tell anyone at work. I worried that I’d find myself squeezed out by people who were “healthier”—no great feat at the adjunct level, regardless of how strong the instructors’ union may be. Worse, as a woman, I already found myself constantly under scrutiny for what I wore or how I spoke. Student evaluations were always some variation on, “She has a nice smile, and is so understanding!” while peer evaluations described the colour of my clothes and my hairstyle rather than the lectures I’d spent hours preparing. I could not show any sign of weakness. I became adept at smiling cheerfully and brushing away concerns about my health.At this particular moment, I was up for a temporary promotion to a one-year full-time position, and I was helping to propose a minor for our department, which meant gathering and refining the necessary materials and creating new courses. My workload increased; my pay did not. That was okay, I reasoned, because it was work towards a greater goal. Should I get the promotion, it would have all been worth it. I was as agreeable as could be, and it was largely genuine: the prospect of investing my time in a place and program I really believed in was exciting. The brain tumour would have to take a backseat.*I got on a cancellation list for the specialist and saw her three months in advance of my original appointment. She spent about 15 minutes with me, told me not to worry, and dismissed my suggestions that the tumour was causing the symptoms that wouldn’t let up. I left the office reeling; I’d assumed that I would get some form of solution from her, and I didn’t know what to do next. I became defiant, telling everyone “If the doctors don’t care, then neither do I.” Three days later, I got word that approval for my promotion had been rejected by the university’s administration. I cheerfully told my colleagues that I understood, but I had finally collapsed inside; so much of my self-worth is wrapped up in my professional achievements that I was fighting for reasons to keep getting up in the morning.My partner did not let me slide. He had been gently insisting on cooking me dinner and was accompanying me to appointments. That weekend, we escaped for a brief trip to Niagara Falls, feeling dizzy from the temporary release from the stress. Through the summer, he has coached me through my depression, an ever-present hopelessness threatening to drown me, and he’s encouraged me to channel my anger and energy into my creative output rather than my teaching work. We still don’t live together, but there is some comfort knowing that he won’t let me go more than a few hours without getting in touch.I’d wrongly assumed systems I’d come to trust would always be in place. I have no hope for the education system: as long as universities funnel available resources into bloated administrative departments at the expense of secure positions for professors, they will suffer from reduced quality in instruction. The healthcare system, I’ve learned, can be managed with persistence and, often, a bit of luck: I happened to mention the tumour at my book club, and luckily my friend, who manages the Brain Tumour Research Centre at Sick Kids Hospital, put me in touch with additional specialists. I’ll get their second opinions at appointments in the fall.And I’ll continue on as a precarious employee, hoping that at the ten-year mark this January, I’ll at least get a new course to teach as a sort of anniversary gift. But I can’t let it determine my self-worth. It will take a lot of work, but I’m getting there. Funny how hearing the words “brain tumour” makes you realign your priorities; I left town for the summer and spent long stretches ignoring my work emails. I now go for long walks and read books beside my partner with pure enjoyment and zero guilt, something I’ve never been able to do before.Also, it’s still taking me longer than it should to answer emails. Hopefully I’ve reserved the right.
Featuring Kazuo Ishiguro
Exploring the dark with Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Buried Giant.
The Terror of the Archive

I might be, in many ways, a different person now than when I signed up for Ashley Madison more than a decade ago. And yet, I can’t escape reminders of the ways in which I may be very much the same.

By the time I signed up for Ashley Madison in 2003, I had spiraled into a deep depression. I had recently hurt some people with my callousness and selfishness—first a woman with whom I was involved, then some friends—and with the image of myself as a good person shattered, I slid into a pit of self-destruction. I cut myself off from the world: slept all day, played video games all night, lost a quarter of my body weight.I don't think it registered to me at the time that Ashley Madison was supposed to be a site people visited to cheat. It just seemed salacious—enough of a promise that something there could explode my crumbling life. I put up a photo of my newly skinny self and got two responses, both of which came in the form of photos of improbably attractive women, naked, either bent over or with legs spread apart. I was too naive then to know that they were almost certainly sent by bots or men trying to mess with me. I didn't respond anyway. I might have been, in many ways, a different person then, but in other significant ways, I was very much the same.*The Ashley Madison leak has become a stark example of how privacy online is far more fraught and complex than most realized or wanted to believe, to make no mention of the swirl of questions raised around cheating, monogamy, hacking, and publicizing information. Yet, we also now have a sense that Ashley Madison itself was essentially a years-long grift. Based on data from the hack, it seems likely that only a hair over zero percent of the messages sent on the site were from women. Given that it never really billed itself as a site for men seeking men, it’s unlikely to have facilitated much actual interaction at all, let alone illicit romance. It was, in essence, a site dedicated to fantasy.But in publicizing all that yearning for fantasy—the names of those who searched for an unknown something in vain—the leak has nonetheless forced people to comb back through their pasts and past transgressions. It is an effect of how the web and digitality often collapse the distance between past and present: The archive of who we are in the collection of tweets, status updates, blog posts, and photographs scattered online looms like some peat bog of personality, always about to gurgle up some perfectly preserved act from our personal history.The digitally inflected individual is often not quite an individual, not quite alone. Our past selves seem to be suspended around us like ghostly, shimmering holograms, versions of who we were lingering like memories made manifest in digital, diaphanous bodies. For me, many of those past selves are people I would like to put behind me—that same person who idly signed up for Ashley Madison is someone who hurt others by being careless and self-involved. Now, over a decade on, I'm left wondering to what extent that avatar of my past still stands for or defines me—of the statute of limitations on past wrongs. Though we've always been an accumulation of our past acts, now that digital can splay out our many, often contradictory selves in such an obvious fashion, judging who we are has become more fraught and complicated than ever. How, I wonder, do we ethically evaluate ourselves when the conflation of past and present has made things so murky?*Sometimes, I aimlessly trawl through old and present email accounts, and it turns out I am often inadvertently mining for awfulness. In one instance—in a Hotmail account I named after my love for The Simpsons—I find myself angrily and thoughtlessly shoving off a woman's renewed affection because I am, I tell her, "sick of this." I reassure myself that I am not that person anymore—that I now have the awareness and the humility to not react that way. Most days, looking at how I've grown since then, I almost believe this is true.Yet, to be human is to constantly make mistakes and, as a result, we often hurt others, if not through our acts then certainly our inaction. There is for each of us, if we are honest, a steady stream of things we could have done differently or better: could have stopped to offer a hand; could have asked why that person on the subway was crying; could have been kinder, better, could have taken that leap. But, we say, we are only who we are.We joke about the horror of having our Google searches publicized, or our Twitter DMs revealed, but in truth, we know the mere existence of such a digital database makes it likely that something will emerge from the murky space in which digital functions as a canvas for our fantasies or guilt.That is how we justify ourselves. Our sense of who we are is subject to a kind of recency bias, and a confirmation bias, too—a selection of memories from the recent past that conform to the fantasy of the self as we wish it to be. Yet the slow accretion of selective acts that forms our self-image is also largely an illusion—a convenient curation of happenings that flatters our ego, our desire to believe we are slowly getting better. As it turns out, grace and forgiveness aren't the purview of some supernatural being, but temporality—the simple erasure of thought and feeling that comes from the forward passage of time.*The digital archive of the self makes that smoothing effect of time harder to maintain. Those confounded "Memories" or "Flashback" functions in services such as Facebook or Dropbox vomit up images and words from the past at inopportune times—some picture of another ghost to whom you could have been kinder. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter searches dredge up unwanted shards of the self—whether by you or, worse, others with ill intent. If the passing of the years slowly sands down those splinters of cruelty and embarrassment, the digital self as a collection of floating holograms pushes them up again, past selves puncturing through the veneer of a coherent identity to reveal not just our own wounds, but the injuries we have inflicted on others.If, however, it was once easier to maintain a self through the suppression of what we wished not to remember, the Ashley Madison hack reminds us that, eventually, some secrets will spill out. We joke about the horror of having our Google searches publicized, or our Twitter DMs revealed, but in truth, we know the mere existence of such a digital database makes it likely that something will emerge from the murky space in which digital functions as a canvas for our fantasies or guilt. Collapsed into the same experiential space, the past and present colliding, our digital selves are archives of our identities. This is the holographic self—not a timeline of identity, or a steady accumulation of wisdom, but the criss-crossed network of being a person, mapped out onto screens. To be a digital human is to be many, and in more than one place at once. Am I a good person? Depends on where on the timeless web of self you stand in order to look and judge.*If digital collapses the y-axis of time on the graph of identity, squeezing the past and present into an uncomfortable closeness, then it also expands the spatial x-axis outward. Instead of a single self existing in one place, we have an identity spinning out into a number of different sites. We express various aspects of ourselves in different locations, putting fractured facets of our identity on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and elsewhere. We curate and perform, it's true, but we often revel in the distance between not only our bodily self and online personas, but between those personas, too—solemn posts on Facebook and thirst traps on Instagram.Splitting out parts of the self in this way can be done for a variety of reasons, but often it’s to control or supersede some particular aspect of the self. What we once did with time, letting parts of who we are recede into the enveloping dark of the past, we now do with digital, scattering seeds of experience across a range of places to gain mastery over them—to gain mastery over our sense of self.Yet, I am reminded of Julius, the protagonist in Teju Cole's novel Open City. In that ambulatory text, Julius mostly wanders around New York City engaged in introspection, strolling past sites of historical trauma. Near the end of the novel, though, Cole reveals that Julius himself has inflicted trauma on another person—a revelation the text responds to by continuing in its ambivalent, sympathetic wandering. If throughout most of the novel's see-sawing between past and present Julius is a collection of holograms—aspects of his self that merge into some virtual amalgam—he uses that scattered detachment to distance himself from his crime. It is deeply unsettling—a kind of metaphorical warning of how the holographic self can be deployed to evade ethics and consequence. Past and present may merge, but multiple selves allow us to compartmentalize our acts.I wonder how many other men, despite having been duped, are now attempting to compartmentalize their own past actions on Ashley Madison—of how, now faced with the past, they are attempting, both honestly and not, to say that they are no longer those people who sought solace or fantasy in the arms of people who weren’t there. Yet, strangely, even in the face of the melancholy emptiness of the Ashley Madison leak, we all are faced with the abstract possibility of that reckoning: not just in the text and images of the web, but in the systems of surveillance on the streets, in the symbiotic, mutually constitutive relationship between databases and hackers, the link between a secure archive and, inevitably, its easily searchable public mirror. Our fantasies may yet be made public.What will we then make of the breezy, binary moralizing that accompanied the Ashley Madison hack—the kind that says those who have to confront their shadows deserve whatever they get? When we are all holographic—all a set of competing avatars meant to obscure that our digitized selves are always our past, present, and future—will we then also say that we are always to be judged as just one person, one accumulation of things?It’s as if in our righteous moral judgment, what we are expressing is not a sentence, but a desire to fix what is actually always in flux.The line between evasiveness and forgiveness, cowardice and grace, is thin, often difficult to locate, but absolutely vital. It seems, though, that our ethical structures may slowly be slipping out of step with our subjectivities. If we have abandoned the clean but totalitarian simplicity of Kant’s categorical imperative, instead embracing that postmodern cliché of a fluid morality, we still cling to the idea that the self being morally judged is a singular ethical entity, either good or bad. It's common on social media, for example, for someone to be dismissed permanently for one transgression—some comedian or actor who is good at race but bad at gender (or vice versa) to be moved from the accepted pile to the trash heap. If our concept of morality is fluid, our idea of moral judgment is not similarly so.That notion of self assumes morality is accretive and cumulative: that we can get better over time, but nevertheless remain a sum of the things we’ve done. Obviously, for the Bill Cosbys or Jian Ghomeshis or Jared Fogles of the world, this is fine. In those cases, it is the repetition of heinous, predatory behaviour over time that makes forgiveness almost impossible—the fact that there is no distance between past and present is precisely the point. For most of us, though, that simple idea of identity assumes that selves are singular, totalized things, coherent entities with neat boundaries and linear histories that arrived here in the present as complete. Even if that ever were true, what digitality helps lay bare is that who we are is actually a multiplicity, a conglomeration of acts, often contradictory, that slips backward and forward and sideways through time incessantly.Some obvious things—rape, murder, abuse, pedophilia—are unforgivable. About most of the mistakes and transgressions that make us who we are, however, I am less sure—uncertain of not only what is right and what is wrong, but that being human can ever be pinned down so neatly. It’s as if in our righteous moral judgment, what we are expressing is not a sentence, but a desire to fix what is actually always in flux.*People are deleting their tweets. As The Awl’s John Hermann puts it, Time is a Privacy Setting. To obscure the past self and the contexts that produced it is a way to suppress the difficulty that comes from appearing to be more than one person.It makes sense. Recently, a Canadian political candidate, Ala Buzreba, was forced to bow out of the federal election race because of tweets she wrote four years ago when she was 17. Particularly as someone in the public eye, the past self that bubbled up was taken as a reflection of her current self, despite the fact that there were many reasons not to: age, the developmental importance of one’s early twenties, or the simple fact that people change.One might say, “oh, it’s just politics,” and one would be right. Politics is often where deeply rooted bias spills out. We may talk of forgiveness and fluidity, but the pressure, circularity, and scrutiny of political races is like a distilling process for deep-seeded ideology. We may claim looks don't matter, but when taller political candidates consistently win nominations and elections, we know that isn't exactly true. In the case of Ala Buzreba, a strong idea of the relation between personal history and current identity was revealed.This is no small matter, one in which we might easily say, “listen, we all contain multitudes, let’s just cut everyone a little slack.” The consistency of self is at the core of our idea of ethics or justice. Even to think of extreme, obvious examples—Nazi war criminals in hiding, say—already reveals that the notion that our past selves are not our current selves is altogether too glib a reaction, too simplistic to actually grapple with the difficulty of how we apply rightness to correct past wrongs.But in something as comparatively innocuous as the Ashley Madison hack, it bears remembering that few people, if any, were actually cheating. Instead, they were all—well, I suppose we were all—performing fantasy, projecting a vision of a potential future self onto a digital canvas in order to toy with it: to let that image sit in the light and be allowed to work its cathartic effect even though it wasn’t real.The terror of the personal, digital archive is not that it reveals some awful act from the past, some old self that no longer stands for us, but that it reminds us that who we are is in fact a repetition, a cycle, a circular relation of multiple selves to multiple injuries.Acts that hurt, acts that have material and emotional consequence, cannot be so easily erased by the idea of a multiple self. Yet, the strange thing about the Ashley Madison hack is that in formalizing the search for fantasy—in making a digital record of desire—we have produced a database of the self, and like all databases, it may one day be exposed. Perhaps, then, the effect of digitality on identity is less about the plurality of self than it is the materialization of the subconscious—the fact that our inner desires not only have a place in which they can be expressed and explored, but have a record of such as well.Is the difficulty of digitality for our ethics, then, not the multiplicity of the person judged, but our Janus-faced relation to the icebergs of our psyches—the fact that our various avatars are actually interfaces for our subconscious, exploratory mechanisms for what we cannot admit to others or ourselves?Freud said that we endlessly repeat past hurts, forever re-enacting the same patterns in a futile attempt to patch the un-healable wound. This, more than anything, is the terror of the personal, digital archive: not that it reveals some awful act from the past, some old self that no longer stands for us, but that it reminds us that who we are is in fact a repetition, a cycle, a circular relation of multiple selves to multiple injuries. It’s the self as a bundle of trauma, forever acting out the same tropes in the hopes that we might one day change.What I would like to tell you is that I am a better man now than when, years ago, I tried my best to hide from the world and myself. In many ways that is true. Yet, all those years ago, what dragged me out of my depressive spiral was meeting someone—a beautiful, kind, warm person with whom, a decade later, I would repeat similar mistakes. I was callous again: took her for granted, pushed her away when I wanted to, and couldn’t take responsibility for either my or her emotions. Now, when a piece of the past pushes its way through the ether to remind me of who I was or am, I can try to push it down—but in a quiet moment, I might be struck by the terror that some darker, more cowardly part of me is still too close for comfort, still there inside me. The hologram of my past self, its face a distorted, shadowy reflection of me with large, dark eyes, is my mirror, my muse. And any judgment of my character depends not on whether I, in some simple sense, am still that person, but whether I—whether we, multiple and overlapped—can reckon with, can meet and return the gaze of the ghosts of our past.
The Gift of the Border

Borders don’t really exist. They’re imaginary spaces, semi-porous membranes whose only power is collectively imbued by the citizens and governments they separate. They can also be opportunities.

The layout of urban Busia, Kenya, isn’t so much a grid as it is a fuzzy line segment. There is no radial symmetry, only a tight sprawl of houses and roads hugging Kenya’s last ten kilometers of the B1 highway before it reaches Uganda. The road is Busia’s one artery, pumping oil, sugar, bananas, coffee, gold, guns, and more back-and-forth across the border. Some towns in Western Kenya are dependent on the sugar industry; others, fishing. Busia, whose population has quadrupled to more than 60,000 over the last 20 years, is booming because of the border industry.Aside from a stretch of coastline along Lake Victoria, Uganda is landlocked. The country’s manufacturing economy is growing, but its strength is still in producing raw coffee, tea, and tobacco for export. The closest and largest port to the rest of the world is Mombasa in southern Kenya. Uganda must conduct most of its trade by the overland route, and according to a few border guards I talked to, about 80 percent of this traffic comes through the Busia border before heading to the coast. Uganda is also Kenya’s largest export partner; almost all of those exports come through the border here. Busia nucleated around the kernel of activity that is the border, turning itself into far more than just a remote checkpoint.There aren’t any tall buildings in Busia, but the stationary line of shipping trucks, protruding kilometers back from the border, is something like a terrestrial skyscraper. They snarl traffic on the B1 to a halt, making movement on the road impossible and forcing matatus and boda-bodas to weave between them. Hotels, cafes, and dingy bars line the street to service truck drivers who have to wait for hours, sometimes even overnight. They are the natural resource the town’s economy runs on. Busia never sleeps—not with a steady supply of men with money rolling through for less than a day at a time.My travelling partner and I were trying to make it into Uganda from Kisumu, Kenya, but we had visa problems and didn’t want to risk crossing the border illegally. So we were marooned in Busia until we met with a crossing agent with whom we had a mutual friend. In a small cafe along B1, a Quebecois prank show from the 1990s played on the TV while he agreed to help us out for a nominal service fee. It would, however, take all night.Entering Busia, you pass massive signs proclaiming “YOU ARE APPROACHING A NO CORRUPTION ZONE.” Despite the wishful thinking, there are more little opportunities for extra-legal wrangling than can be regulated, from mismarked shipments to incorrectly dated visas to smugglers looking to grease the wheels. If the purchasing power of the crossing agents with whom we interacted is evidence, business is good.After the handoff, we followed David (all names have been changed) through a labyrinth of barbershops, currency exchange booths, and snack shops to a small porch. Across a short, dark field, 100 meters away, the road terminates at a grouping of dingy streetlights and a few chow stands. Uganda is right there, no fence in between. People ride motorcycles in between countries, nonchalantly crisscrossing the border at their leisure.A tall fence barricades the road, but here, another country’s soil is within walking distance without a barrier. None of the border guards who come to say hello seem to mind the traffic. They’re here to chill, not work. One of them owns the barbershop we’re in, the phone store across the street, and mentions how he wants to buy the restaurant next to us. We chat about the trip, Kisumu, and the English Premier League.Regardless of their break-time attitude, though, the life of a crossing agent is a nimble one. They must process nonstop traffic from both sides. Kenyans and Ugandans can cross without a visa, and technically there aren’t tariffs or duties on goods shipped between the countries. This would seem to make most transactions fairly simple, but in practice, getting across is trickier. Upon entering Busia, you pass massive signs proclaiming “YOU ARE APPROACHING A NO CORRUPTION ZONE.” Despite the wishful thinking, there are more little opportunities for extra-legal wrangling than can be regulated, from mismarked shipments to incorrectly dated visas to smugglers looking to grease the wheels. If the purchasing power of the crossing agents with whom we interacted is evidence, business is good.Those hotels and cafes spanning the length of B1? All owned by crossing agents. On a tour of Busia, David and his friends pointed out kinyozi (barbershops), stores selling cell phone data packages, and hotels that their coworkers owned. Over beers at a rooftop club later that night, each man talked about saving up to buy some businesses of their own. One of their friends opened the club four months earlier to huge fanfare, and it’s apparently packed every night. Couples grind glacially as we settle in. David and his friends introduce us to all their friends.They show us how to dance to Ugandan pop, which is great, and tell us about the subtle yet important differences between Ugandan and Kenyan songs. We get the grand tour of the club, all four floors of it. Ernest, the owner, is planning to fill the building out with a hotel, two restaurants, and a pair of clubs. Whenever one of us finishes our drink, another one materializes in its place. There is a National Geographic show about bears on all the televisions. A storm rolls in and knocks the power out, and everyone patiently drinks until it comes back on and the party resumes. Every third person seems to be a crossing agent or someone’s good friend. One of them has khat. Others come and go, to work, from families, from other clubs. We meet girlfriends, get shown pictures of families on cell phones, and David offers us a place to sleep at his house.A swarm of sugar shipments from Kampala are scheduled to start the crossing process at 2 a.m., so Ernest leaves us to head to work. David will join him after the night ends too. I ask if being a border agent is hard work and they describe it as a hustle. You work long hours, meet people of all stripes, but you have autonomy to make the job what you will. Most want to make it into a side career in real estate.While these kinyozi and clubs are technically the spoils of corruption, their moral valence isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. Corruption is often seen as endemic to Kenyan political society, and across institutions, bribes are built into the cost of doing business. Our neighbor back in Kisumu told us he was paying for the required lessons to get his driver’s license because he didn’t want to pay for the bribe. Joining a civic body, for example, most notably the police, tends to take an exorbitant bribe. After the Westgate mall attack in 2013, soldiers were caught on CCTV looting stores while they were supposed to be securing the building.There’s a kind of positive feedback loop that comes with the corruption introduced during British colonialism—a warped, accelerated capitalism that incentivizes watching your own ass rather than doing your duty. It’s not an intrinsic feature of Kenyan society, but rather a structural neocolonial holdover from a recently bygone era where Kenya was property. Kenyans are frustrated about it and want to loosen its grip, but the British wove it in as deeply as they could. In Busia, the crossing agents at least invest their cut back into the town. And as in our case, having a fixer on your side can be a mutually beneficial alliance.There’s a symbiosis to how Busia functions for everyone involved. Matatus from Kisumu, Eldoret, and elsewhere around western Kenya haul in people to the open-air markets next to the fence and then head back laden with sacks full of cheap clothes. Because of the weak Ugandan shilling, everything is cheaper in Busia—Kenyans get access to cheap clothes, and Ugandans get access to the healthier Kenyan market. Supply and demand are in something like regulated harmony, with the crossing agents as referees.We never got to cross the border on this trip, suspended as we were in visa limbo. For those on the right side of the law, crossing is haphazardly simple. You have to shuffle through a scantily demarcated construction zone between the fences before you pop into a simple building. Outside the fence, Uganda has its own Busia, a town of equal size that I heard functions the same as its Kenyan twin. The tilted economic gradient between the two is gradual at a country-to-country level, but on the ground, the topography is sharper. The minor transgressions and side hustles going on in Busia don’t register at all in Nairobi or Kampala, but in each Busia, they matter to—and help—almost everyone.For all their implied importance as agents of separation, borders don’t really exist. They’re imaginary spaces, semi-porous membranes whose only power is collectively imbued by the citizens and governments they separate. Sometimes, they are heavily militarized zones, inhospitable and contentious. Sometimes, they’re just signs on the road. And sometimes, they’re opportunities.
Intercept - Trump/Ramos

What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sitting by quietly and pretending to have no opinions on any of it and that “both sides” are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity?

What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sitting by quietly and pretending to have no opinions on any of it and that “both sides” are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity?-Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept: "Jorge Ramos Commits Journalism, Gets Immediately Attacked by Journalists"
Good Reads Gone Bad

When it comes to erotic work by female authors, users on critical online forums can have trouble separating artists from their art.

“Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamor of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive.” – Susan SontagI fell in lust with Tampa by Alissa Nutting because Amazon uses great algorithms to generate its lists of “You might also like.”The domino effect began with my reading Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger (great, read it), which in turn led to Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (gross, great, read it), which brought up the hilarious and brilliant How to Train Your Virgin.Finally, there was Tampa, its cover a close-up image of what first appeared to be a cunt hole (what else can I say? Writing about sex is hard. Vagina describes the inside; vulva, though preferred by those wishing to be appropriate, refers to the chops; and this was neither), but upon closer examination turned out to be the open buttonhole of a pink chambray shirt.Trusting the robots, I downloaded my free sample and minutes later paid for the whole thing because the opening pages were dazzling. The entire book turned out to be dazzling. I laughed, my cunt hole throbbed (sorry), I forced my best friend to read the passages aloud over drinks without any forewarning about what they entailed because I wanted to make gin and tonic explode out of her nose (success!), and at home I forced my husband to listen to me read entire pages (which was hard for him because he’s a comedy writer, so when I laugh at other people’s writing it’s like watching me have sex with that person in our bed—presumably).Here’s the gist:In 1996, Mary Kay Letourneau, a very pretty 34-year-old teacher, raped her 12- year-old student Vili Fualaau, and now they’re married, and she still looks great. This is real life.In 2013, Nutting released her erotic novel, Tampa, inspired by the crimes of Nutting’s real-life high school classmate, the very pretty predator Debra Lafave. In 2004, LaFave was found guilty of raping a 14-year-old. But she was deemed too pretty for prison. This is also real life. Tampa is not.The novel is told from the point of view of Celeste, a middle school teacher who tries to seduce her students with varying degrees of success. Her outlook is so cynical, so refreshingly sharp and despicable. Her unlikability is exactly what made me like her.To her great frustration, Celeste often has to satiate her desires via bizarre and inventive fantasies—imaginings that left me open-mouthed with sheer awe at Nutting’s ingenuity, and often breathless from giggling at the sardonic contours of Celeste’s dark mind.Celeste on her husband Ford, who repulses her because he is an adult:The thought of Ford dead didn’t necessarily arouse me. But the idea of pert adolescent males singing around his corpse, removing their colorful jerseys and swinging them above their heads in celebration, as though his death was a victory of sport and a crucial step to their winning a divisional high school championship—there was something greater than comfort in that image. It had the feel of Greek myth. I began to fantasize that the boys on television had been tadpoles who grew in Ford’s stomach until the day they were strong and large enough to rip their way out in a violent mass birth. It was almost enough to make me feel a hypothetical sympathy for Ford. If his body, torn in half, were indeed a spent cocoon that had incubated four lovely young men, I would kiss him on the cheek and mean it. Thank you, Ford. But there wouldn’t be time to linger. These new adolescents, sticky from their residence inside him, would need me to give them a shower shortly after arrival.Nutting captures the way Celeste’s sexual fantasy becomes inextricably entwined with the idea of her husband’s death in such a weird and inventive way that I wanted to stand up on my bed and clap.Later in the novel, Celeste is in her car, spying on her underage object of desire as he plays videogames. She is masturbating, and in order to come, she imagines the boy as a giant, unbuttoning his pants above the convertible where she is hiding.“If horizon-colored pants began to bunch and fall and his teenage sex of skyscraper proportions was freed, I would drive my car into his toe so he would kneel down to investigate and accidentally kill me when the sequoia-sized head of his penis came crashing through my windshield.”Celeste is hilarious, and in her sex scenes (which I have not included here, not because I'm trying to be polite—please, I said "chops"—but because I don't want to give them away) she is arousing. Yes, arousing: a problematic and self-incriminating but ultimately important admission. Vicarious titillation at these encounters implies that approval is somehow woven into our revulsion. Naively, I went online expecting to find more articulate confirmations of my admiration for Tampa. Instead, I found a slew of reviews slamming Nutting for writing about someone like Celeste. Historically, erotic writing is wedded to social critique and satire. But these reviews reflected an enduring puritanical tendency within American culture to dismiss women who write about sex. Consumer ratings were vitriolic (and misspelled, but whatever). When I mentioned them to a friend of mine, who is a novelist, he said, “Well aren’t they always?” He seemed casual about it, the subtext of his comment being that sites like Goodreads are for plebs.But here’s the thing: Goodreads is important. Its members are taken seriously within the publishing industry. They receive free books. And given their rising status within the business, justified or not, we cannot dismiss them as simple consumers. They are modern critics. And they must be held accountable in turn.*Goodreads is a social cataloguing site that as of 2013 boasted 20 million users. It allows members to access an enormous database of books, annotations, and reviews.11It probably bears noting here that I have an admittedly muddled relationship with Goodreads. In order to look at the reviews of Nutting’s book, I had to borrow a friend’s account. The site banned me last fall after I wrote a personal essay for The Guardian about being a bad girl—not in the sexual sense, as was referenced here earlier, but in the sense that I am prone to bad behavior. Amazon purchased the site for a reported nine figures, but as of now little research exists to corroborate if activity on Goodreads leads to purchases on Amazon. Non-active users perusing Goodreads seem much more likely to use the site as one would use Wikipedia—that is, either to learn more about the context of a book they’ve already read, to qualify their opinion of that book, or to summarize for themselves a book they were already planning on not reading.In the same way that Twitter users probably won’t show up to a protest because the simple act of having disseminated a social justice hashtag makes them feel productive, Goodreads members often “shelve” (that is, categorize within user-named categories) books they haven’t read and will not read. If “Did Not Read” or “Did Not Finish” shelves on Goodreads tell us anything, it’s that (as with TV recaps) consumers are happy to be informed about art via free recapitulations rather than via direct engagement. Reiterative opinions have become as gratifying as original ones.One learns very young that fiction isn’t real—that actors on a sitcom, for instance, are not tiny elves inside the TV—and yet Nutting’s fiction is considered a memoir, one that, if liked or disliked, accordingly indicates a reader’s virginity or whoredom.Goodreads members have become high-status players in the book world, though the precise relationship between ratings on sites like Goodreads and actual book sales remains murky. Book publicists make advanced copies available to “active Goodreads users,” whose audiences comprise mostly other active Goodreads users. Evidently part of the idea here is that guaranteed reactions, no matter who is reacting and with what kind of credibility or impact, are worthwhile.As a platform, Goodreads enables knee-jerk responses that theoretically would not be considered relevant in more carefully considered, traditional, edited reviews. But democracy hinges on the linchpin of such knee-jerk response. Goodreads users have become powerful because their opinions, by sheer number, lend incredible insight into the ways that contemporary readers read. The site itself is a democracy. It is free and open to anyone.22Well, except me. The most revered reviewer’s thoughts are less valuable than the aggregated opinion of the masses.As of today Tampa has more than 8,000 ratings on Goodreads, 1,753 of which are one- or two-star reviews. (Almost 30 percent of the book’s ratings on Amazon are one or two stars). Here are a couple Goodreads entries that I’ve found are representative of the majority of Tampa’s negative ratings.Daily Billy [Goodreads]: The author is clearly encouraging this kind of behavior. This book was basically child porn with a weird fascination with shitting.33All usernames have been changed.Donald [Goodreads]: Even more disturbing is this reader's gut feeling that [Nutting] has written her own fantasies. Like a previous reviewer, I was compelled to glance at the photo on the author's page each time Celeste alluded to her own appearance. While it seems the rule rather than the exception for today's crop of young female authors to cast themselves in their main roles, the context makes this instance more unsettling than most. Lock up your sons, indeed.My issue with the views expressed is not that they conflict with my opinion of the book (whether we laugh or don’t is a matter of taste) but rather that in aggregate they echo the prevailing assumption that Celeste’s desires are Nutting’s. The majority include weird caveats like, “Now I’m no prude, but…”—implying that any opinion of the book naturally indicates something about the reader’s sexuality. In an anthropological sense this offers a disturbing view into modern literary discourse. One learns very young that fiction isn’t real—that actors on a sitcom, for instance, are not tiny elves inside the TV—and yet Nutting’s fiction is considered a memoir (perhaps women are incapable of creativity?), one that, if liked or disliked, accordingly indicates a reader’s virginity or whoredom.Celeste is bad, so the book is bad, and the author who wrote it must be worse.Lisa: … I'm not the kind of chick who judges a book by its icky content. I say bring on the sex, incest, murder; the more scandalous the better! But yet....This book just gives me the eebie jeebies. It's like as if the authoress were trying to be as vile as possible…for a totally sane rational woman to be writing the way she does?... letting us know that if you are bothered by this, you had best close this book before things get any more...creepy…Here, “Lisa,” like so many other users, includes caveats about her own sexual openness before launching into a critique of the book. Her comments about Nutting’s mental health and her imperative that readers “best close the book if bothered” further underline the prevailing notion that by not shutting the book a reader somehow condones Celeste’s actions.And then, she adds a little bit of ingrained sexism (it’s okay, Lisa, us ladies succumb to it constantly):I'd like to say that not even men are so crude/disgusting in the private sex corners of their mindAnd:…knowing that it was a women writing the book I felt myself feeling almost disappointed with her! Sure, it's a tricky subject to tackle but she could've done it better. It felt to me that like she, in order to write about pedophilia had to try and and think/write like a man.Reviews like Lisa’s are pervasive. There are thousands of defensive, disgusted, dismissive readers whose negative reactions to Tampa are couched in confusion and outrage at that confusion. The implications are upsetting. The prevailing notion is apparently that thought-provoking art vitiates its own worth.Right-Thinking Woman: It made me feel uncomfortable and sick in a way I've never experienced from a book before.The writing in this is beautiful. It is excellent.The subject is not.Thanks, but I really couldn't read this.(I received a copy of this for free via NetGalley for review purposes)Right-Thinking Woman echoes this idea that a book’s ability to make a reader feel bad cancels out its literary virtues. Many other users also admit to likingthe book, saying that they couldn’t put it down, that the writing is great, but that Celeste’s behavior made the book terrible.Catarax: Before you think I gave this one star because I'm a "prude", I actually gave it one star because I simply did not like it. The writing itself was lyrical and I think Nutting has some talent, but this book to me was the equivalent of painting the Mona Lisa with excrement.Celeste is bad, so the book is bad, and the author who wrote it must be worse.*Tampa’s consumer ratings reflect a prevailing sexism even among those who are, presumably, paid for their opinions of the book. “Professional critics” are no better than Right-Thinking Woman.“You're gorgeous; you're young,” an interviewer from Cosmopolitan remarked to Nutting. “How much has your own experience of being a young, attractive female played into creating this book?”And this, from a Tin House interview conducted with Nutting in the year 2013 (ah, 2013—a time when humans were so edgily throwing around the phrase “post-feminism”):“Have you ever had a fixation on a certain age or type of person?”Evidently Tin House, much like Donald, Lisa, or Daily Billy, could not comprehend how Nutting might be able to write fiction about pedophilia without actually being a pedophile. Or else the interviewer assumed that because she was “that kind of woman” who writes about sex, Nutting must also be the sort to discuss her sex life with strangers. This rankled me, because Humbert Humbert can rape Dolores Haze to eventual acclaim. But with Tampa, there seemed to be only one question—echoed again and again, implicit in every interview, every one-star rating, every critic’s self-servingly virtuous tone:Was Nutting a good girl, or a bad girl?“Have you ever had a fixation on a certain age or type of person?”“I like men with beards,” Nutting responded gamely, clearly used to the bullshit by now. “There’s something kind of closer-to-nature for me about beards that’s pleasant. My husband has a really great beard and the other day at the park, a bunch of those white fuzzy dandelion seeds were blowing around in the air and got lodged in his beard.”Perhaps while reading this you noticed the word “beard,” which Nutting repeats four times. You don’t have to be an English major to grasp the subtext: by reiterating her preference for “beards” she implicitly emphasizes her attraction to male humans of a certain age—not guys who are only slightly capable of growing facial hair (like those wispy, despondent, Vili Fualaau-style-circa-’96 mustaches), not adolescents, in other words, but fully bearded post-pubescent-hyper-masculine-lumber-jack-type men. Specifically, her husband. She is not a pedophile. She is monogamous. She is good.When men write 100-plus pages of erotica, it’s a novel, but when women do, it’s smut that, with every (often brilliantly executed) sex scene, denigrates itself and the author, because the world is bullshit and sexist.I called Nutting to ask, among other things, how it had felt to write a hilarious novel replete with smart social commentary, and almost exclusively face reactions about her presumed pedophilia.“I think a lot of interviewers and readers really wanted to engage with this character and were hoping that they could do that through me,” she said. “At times it got a little frustrating … because at times it got a little hurtful … some of the accusations, where people really didn’t see any distinction whatsoever between this as a novel of fiction and a memoir, were pretty scary and upsetting for me.”*While talking on the phone with Nutting, I scrolled through some more of the one- and two-star reviews, hovering over one left by a user called David. “I am pretty sure the intent of this book was not to be funny,” he wrote, going on to complain that “a woman wrote this book and got it published where as a man would probably get arrested.”I narrowed my eyes at the faceless David. A man would probably win awards. In general men who explore the grey areas surrounding consent and pleasure and perversion, men who write about fucking and murdering women—men who acknowledge women’s bodies as being public—these men are interesting writers. They write literature. I’m thinking specifically of Lolita, American Psycho. Of DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Ian McEwan, Henry Miller. When men write 100-plus pages of erotica, it’s a novel, but when women do, it’s smut that, with every (often brilliantly executed) sex scene, denigrates itself and the author, because the world is bullshit and sexist. Nobody asks Dick Wolf, the creator of Law and Order: SVU, whether his show goes into such gory detail regarding imagined rape (of children, women, men, animals) because he is a rapist. But when a woman navigates illegal sexual acts in her writing, someone needs to call the police.Johnny: All writers write from experience, whether actual or from a deeply imagined preoccupation with the subject matter and, in the case of Tampa, no writer could describe the lusting after fourteen year old boys, as Ms Nutting does in great detail on almost every page, without having personal experience of being a hebephile.To avoid screaming I shoved a chocolate bar in my mouth.“The disturbing aspects of life. That’s male territory,” Nutting told me, “that’s for the male imagination. Male writers get to go to all the dark corners, right? Whereas female writers, they get the domestic or the emotional landscape and that ... that’s our territory. We can only write our own desire and what we want to happen to us or to our bodies.”She admitted she’d been rattled by the reactions to her book, that it took her a while to recover from the slew of accusations that she was some kind of sexual deviant because she’d made up a world where one existed—but that she’d since reached “a place of gratitude for all of it.”“How long did it take you to get to that place?”“I’m at that place right now, but in like, five minutes?” She laughed. “It’s not always a stable place, but it did take a while. I’ll say maybe like half a year? Maybe six months out of publication.”She explained that part of the personal tumult probably stemmed from the fact that Tampa was her first novel. She’d expected blowback, certainly. But what she encountered was not what she’d anticipated. It was much more personal.“It still is, in some sense, a trauma,” she said, “and an assault because writing is such an isolated, solitary action in a lot of ways…I think a lot of writers certainly are very anxious obsessive, insecure people. I certainly am.”I asked if she ever looked at Goodreads.“Oh god ... I did at first,” she said. “And I had to stop … If you have these insecure, masochistic tendencies like I do … I just don’t ever feel like I can punish myself enough ever. Like ever. Like, I never feel like I can feel bad enough about myself. I think if that’s your nature, Goodreads is probably not the site for you … my therapist banned me and I conceded to her wisdom.”*So many of the reviews of Tampa dismissed it on the basis that it tried to “shock” readers. Thousands of users called it child pornography.But isn’t all art attention-seeking? And ultimately, isn’t pornography versus erotica an issue of semantics? Etymologically speaking, pornography means “writing about prostitutes.” And so on that level, the label doesn’t fit here, at all. Gloria Steinem published an article in Ms. where she not only laid out the differences between erotica and pornography, but also discussed the right-wing implications of dismissing as filth those stories that explore women’s desires. And while Steinem would rightly accuse me of taking her discussion out of context, her argument regarding “that familiar division: wife or whore”—“good” woman … or “bad”—and how “both roles would be upset if we [women] were to control our sexuality” is applicable with Tampa, if only in a theoretical sense.“The disturbing aspects of life. That’s male territory,” Nutting told me, “that’s for the male imagination. Male writers get to go to all the dark corners, right? Whereas female writers, they get the domestic or the emotional landscape and that ... that’s our territory. We can only write our own desire and what we want to happen to us or to our bodies.” Throughout her essay, Steinem distinguishes pornography as being about an imbalance of power, but only on the condition that that power is used against women in particular. And so Celeste, though indisputably criminal, “bad” and more powerful than the boys she rapes, is also inarguably in control of her sexuality, making her a monstrous but feminist figure. She calls the shots, she subjugates males in violent ways that, beyond simply and intelligently speaking to societal double standards surrounding rape and victimhood, simultaneously reverse (and therefore disrupt) the typical model of masculine violence that we’ve grown accustomed to. So the vitriol directed at Nutting via her character, in this case, could be interpreted as a sexist rallying cry against the power and pleasure that Nutting has granted Celeste.“As it is,” Steinem writes, “our bodies have too rarely been enough our own to develop erotica in our own lives, much less in art and literature.” Ultimately, she concludes that pornography depicts women pretending to enjoy themselves, whereas with erotica, the pleasure is real. And whatever one might think about Celeste as a criminal, she certainly enjoys herself. Thoroughly.And even if we label Tampa as pornography, then to be consistent we must also dismiss Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, and Henry Miller (among others), and if we do not dismiss these men as pornographers, then we must consider the sexism inherent in our semantic distinctions. Accusations of pornography are reinforced by what Susan Sontag called society’s “demonic vocabularies” used for describing the human need for art as a vehicle of pornographic imagination. But I would argue that those vocabularies now extend more to women than to men.*Such arbitration stems naturally from its inverse: self-judgment. Statistically, consumers of erotica and romance indulge on e-readers so that others can’t see what they’re reading. It is not uncommon for people to be humiliated by their own arousal. And Tampa produces morally ambiguous titillation that, if repressed out of mortification, drives self-unaware readers to project that self-loathing as moralistic judgment onto whatever or whomever “caused” it.Ralph: One star probably isn't fair. It is not written badly. And really I skimmed it. Perhaps because every page brought some new embarrassment.Tim: I kinda hate myself for compulsively reading it and so quickly, so there's that.The self-consciousness that goes hand-in-hand with enjoying erotic material implies that the novels we read say something about us as people, perhaps that we are sexually carnivorous or perverted or secretly unsatisfied with the sex we are having. Arousal, revulsion, or arousal that is entwined with revulsion—these reactions are incredibly visceral, and if art can provoke strong reactions then it has obviously succeeded. Taste is irrelevant here. We don’t have to like something to acknowledge its success. But embarrassment and anger cloud judgment, causing people to lash out against the provocative.It follows that part of the reason people are so generally uproarious about Tampa may be that it turned them on, and they didn’t want it to.Getting excited by that which repulses actually doesn’t make us weird. In a study published the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, James Check and Neil Malamuth found that pleasure turns us on regardless of context—even with depictions of rape. “Portrayals that depicted the woman as experiencing sexual arousal, irrespective of whether they portrayed rape or consenting interactions, were reported … to be more sexually stimulating than those depicting disgust.” Although sex crime is manifest in almost every scene of Tampa, whether in terms of fantasy or action, both Celeste and her victims also experience ecstasy, and this shared pleasure, at least in the moment, overwhelms the violence that defines Celeste’s cravings and might otherwise categorize the book as pornographic. Yet instead of talking about how female pleasure mitigates the revulsion we might want ourselves to feel, men like David, Donald, Ralph, and Tim (and that guy who is Billy every day) demonize women for turning them on. It’s the old dichotomy of wife or whore. And what seems like a high percentage of readers take to the Internet, waving torches, talking about Nutting’s sick mind.“Do you miss writing Tampa?” I asked Nutting. I told her I missed reading it.She said that yeah, she had gotten to know the character well, and she missed the clarity of that familiarity. But Celeste’s cynicism was also a dangerous thing to get drawn into, Nutting continued, because Nutting had drawn that cynicism from within herself, which had forced her to explore an aspect of her own personality that she wasn’t necessarily proud of.“Though I don’t share any of her sexual proclivities,” she hastened to add.*A creative writing teacher once told me that it doesn’t matter how evil our character is—if we give him one clear desire, we make him vulnerable, and vulnerability garners a reader’s sympathy. “Example: Begin with a thirsty-as-hell character,” he said, “and no matter how stupid or weird or monstrous he is, we’re going to read on until he gets that glass of water.”While reading Tampa, I found myself reflecting on my former teacher’s advice, because when Celeste wanted to have sex with little boys, I wanted that for her too. It reminded me a little of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire, in which a brother and sister are sexually attracted to each other, and Irving creates so much build-up between them that eventually I was cheering for incest. Their desires were not my desires. Celeste’s desires are not my desires. I have never raped a little boy or had sex with my brothers, nor do I want to, nor do I plan to. But why do I have to say that? Why is there this impetus to differentiate myself from the fiction I read? It’s not an uncommon defense mechanism. Getting turned on by a grown woman fucking a pubeless boy is a difficult thing to admit over dinner. But the only way to combat evil is to stop thinking of it in black and white terms, to dismiss the notion that it’s born and that good people can’t become bad, to shake off naiveté, in other words, and instead to viscerally grasp the insidiousness of what we see as vile: the shadowy magnetism of evil that makes people, perhaps all of us, complicit.Erotica isn’t a flimsy paperback to read on, and discard into, the toilet. It’s a useless term that ghettoizes good writers and perpetuates deep-seated sexism that prevents women from getting the artistic recognition they deserve. In order to right wrongs and catch criminals and prevent crimes and educate potential victims, we need to talk, we need to discuss uncomfortable things. Humor sheds light on darkness. And by ignoring that fact, we’re shutting down the conversation. Sex writing is important. Arousing a reader with depictions of rape is important, because the only way to combat evil is to understand it, to feel some part of it ourselves.“How many people have admitted to you that the book has turned them on?” I asked Nutting.She laughed. “Well it’s funny, a lot! A lot. And the ways that people admit that are really different and interesting. Usually it’s like this almost whispered confession, Like, it’s something that is not the first thing that's brought up in conversation … [but] after a few drinks or something.”I did some verbal nodding. We mused over how the shame involved probably stemmed from the same inclination to call Nutting a pervert. Leaps to judgment start with judgment of oneself.“Every kind of reader is coming in with their own experiences and forming a projection and it is a fantasy,” she said. “That’s part of the trouble with the subject that the book wants to engage. That, often, we do fantasize about these older authority figures in our life. And that that’s encouraged and lauded when it’s young men thinking aboutit,and it is kind of seen as misguided or troubled or troubling or slutty, I think, when female students are thinking it, who are minors. That’s just a social judgment. Like, of course … boys are horny and that’s just fine!”“Right,” I said, excited to riff. “Women are not supposed to find teenage boys attractive—and I know that the boys in your book are much younger than that, but there is something ... something sexist to not allow for the fantasy of male virginity because that is such a sensual and formative experience. Like, a bumbling boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing? There’s something sort of sexy about that. So I don’t know, I guess I was just sort of...”I stopped myself, embarrassed. Despite everything I’ve argued here, I felt mortified, rattled to the core over what she might think of me. I thanked her, we got off the phone, and as penance I drowned myself in the most non-sexual writing I could think of off the bat: a full week of Franzen.
Banner for Swim Thru Fire Part 6
Swim Thru Fire Pt. 6

Ada encounters an anglerfish and a mysterious agreement is reached.

Oxford American - Nude Swimming

I hadn’t skinny-dipped in public since I was twenty, the night I lost my virginity in Washington, D.C. That night I felt certain and brave in my new body, not immodest but natural, and freshly in love. How had so much time passed?

I hadn’t skinny-dipped in public since I was twenty, the night I lost my virginity in Washington, D.C. That night I felt certain and brave in my new body, not immodest but natural, and freshly in love. How had so much time passed?-Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Oxford American: "Ode to Swimming Naked"
‘A Pep Talk for People in the Grip of Decay’: An Interview with Dan Bejar

Talking with the Destroyer songwriter about his new album, Poison Season, how his writing evolved past “ranting in a notebook,” and the uncertain state of aging indie-rockers.

In rock music, destruction comes in many forms. There’s Iggy Pop’s scorched-earth “Search and Destroy;” the ribald excess of Kiss’s Destroyer; the Soft Boys’ melodious “I Wanna Destroy You.” Then there’s Dan Bejar, the protean singer-songwriter who, for almost twenty years now, has gone by the puzzling moniker of Destroyer.When you think of Bejar’s music, mass carnage is hardly what comes to mind—even if his acerbic wit and anthemic bent can make for an unexpected kind of violence that amounts to an intellectual gut punch. Yet the Vancouver indie-savant is constantly dismantling and reinventing his music, from the charged folk-rock of 2000’s Thief and 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction to 2004’s synth-opus Your Blues and the steely blue-eyed soul grooves of 2010’s surprise hit Kaputt.The forthcoming Poison Season recasts the 42-year-old Bejar yet again, this time through a series of slow-burning ballads largely inspired by the Great American Songbook and golden-throated crooners—albeit with some oddball touches to remind you that even in the midst of creation or formation, Destroyer never fails to live up to its name. As usual, no one can explain the album better than Dan Bejar himself. And in keeping with his uneasy, lightly mysterious persona, even for Bejar dissecting Poison Season is its own kind of adventure.*I wanted to ask you about “Dream Lover,” since that was the first thing I heard from the record. The line “I think I used to be more fun” really stuck with me.That’s kind of the crux of the whole song.Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I really believed that might inform the entire record.I find “Dream Lover” pretty strange. It seems to stand apart from the other songs on the record. It’s pretty ratty, you know? But I think that middle break in the song is like a curtain that parts, because most of the rest of it is just the band kind of blasting through. There’s a certain amount of bravado in the presentation of the song, even though I think it’s mostly a song about, I don’t know, sickness, really [laughs]. And kind of a pep talk for people in the grip of decay, you know? It’s not really a song I recognize myself in all that much but I thought that’s kind of why I like that one little line that peeks out. You know, it’s kind of a joyous, miserablist song. There’s something so loud, yet so decrepit about it.I thought it was going to be a centerpiece of Poison Season but it ended up as an outlier.Yeah, I think, as far as the album goes, it kind of had to come out of the gates strong, especially after the introduction of the initial, classical motif of “Times Square.” I just wanted something that blasted forward. I thought it was a novelty song. Then it came out just way louder and way more rock than I ever intended. We maybe practiced it twice and took two stabs at recording it at the very end of the session. It kind of just busted loose. But there’s kind of a sneering quality to the vocals, which I like a lot and which is different from a lot of the other singing going on [on Poison Season]. There wasn’t too much work done on it, which is generally a good sign.Outside of “Dream Lover,” there’s this feeling of deliberation. There’s nothing casual or off-the-cuff about the way this record presents itself.I carried the songs around with me for a long time. I kind of stewed on [them] for a bit; I’m not really used to living with songs for that long. In my head, they kind of wavered in form before I even got to the point of trying to sing them. That’s one thing I’m always careful not to do: sing songs before I get into the studio. I want them to be as live as possible, you know? That was a real conflict with the musical traditions I was thinking of here. But even though the music seems to insist on a certain level of grandeur, the actual songs themselves, and the singing, are more composed of these small, intimate, questioning moments.I have to ask: Have you mellowed with age?Looking back, I think I was very confident making records before. They definitely seem harder and harder the more I make them. With records like This Night or Your Blues, I just kind of lucked into them. That’s good, that’s exciting. There’s also this rush that I would get from images and words kind of pouring out onto themselves, and my voice is trying to keep up with them. And that is over, those days are done. I feel like there is always, in my mind, a sort of confrontation between the words and the music, or the singer and the band, and I’m not really that interested in that element now.Let’s face it, my voice, as gently as I might want to croon, still sucks, and the words, even though I don’t write as much as I used to … it’s not like I’m spitting out these things in the same way, they’re still weird. As a genre workout, it’s a failure.Poison Season is musical in a different way than everything else you’ve done. It’s very musical in the old-school sense.Yeah, I think so. I think Poison Season’s got a real twentieth-century vibe. My touchstones haven’t really changed too much. I’m still listening to Richard Harris and The Style Council [like I was with Your Blues]. I had been just doing really quick sneak attacks on that kind of aesthetic, but never thinking of myself truly in that tradition. At this point, I posit myself one hundred percent in the tradition of a Richard Harris or a Paul Weller. But none of that shit’s really changed. I mean, maybe I listened to Scott Walker more back when I was making Your Blues, and through Scott Walker, I discovered Sinatra, in my typical backwards way. It’s me going into classicist mode and just finally immersing myself in this version of American music.Don’t take this the wrong way, but is Poison Season the indie rock version of a standards record?As a move for a singer-songwriter in his early- to mid-forties or whatever, it couldn’t be more hack. It couldn’t be more basic [laughs]. It’s totally Aging Rocker 101, but that’s not a good enough reason for me not to do it. After I got off the road from Kaputt, I got really, really obsessed with the song “Mack the Knife.” The first thing I wanted to do was cover it. When I listen to Poison Season, I feel like it’s so obvious that I was obsessed with that song and different recordings of it.I was literally just about to bring up Kurt Weill.By the way, I didn’t mean to call you old. You’ve just progressed your sound in a way that not many of your peers have. There’s no playbook for indie rock middle-age in the same way there was for previous generations of musicians.It seems like it’s a lot different being an aging classic rocker. The aging indie rocker is kind of a different scene [laughs]. I think you’re supposed to kind of just slowly fade out. There’s no, like, tragic falls, really, or people who want great records making just terrible records. It’s just more that you just become less relevant or less spoken of, you know? But in the end, it seems something very independent from the record that you make. At some point, in the last five years, I realized that what I do is I do show business, which is a different version of Destroyer from the one that came before it—when I thought I was somehow attacking all of those things.Attacking … show business?Yeah, attacking that, attacking all of the things that I didn’t like. I thought that Destroyer was an attack on show biz [laughs], even though I was as much of a song and dance man as anyone else. And the songs, when you boil them down, are very much traditional pop songs or traditional folk-rock songs. There’s nothing too revolutionary about the music. It’s more of this attitude of like a pamphleteer. I’ve never done too much more than just write about what I have at hand, or whatever my scene happens to be. That was never really my ideal of writing or art-making. It’s always something more elevated than that. I’d rather just capture the way the light dances on the water, right?Do you think you’re doing that more now?I hope so. I mean, if you say “I hope so,” it means you’re probably not. But I feel like the music’s less agitated in some ways. At the same time, it seems to be a much darker and much more foreboding record than any Destroyer album I can think of. When I listen to it, even though the sounds are very lush, I feel like there’s a sense of dread in the record, and a sense of someone lost in the world. It feels more real than other Destroyer albums.I mean, you did call it Poison Season.I do wonder what people who don’t have the historical references are going to make of this record.I don’t really know. I mean, I can’t really say that I’ve thought about it. I think the last Destroyer record was kind of a strange crossover moment. In an accidental way, I made a record at the age of 39 or 40 where I seemed to line up with what is, from what I can tell, a certain, weird zeitgeist that went down in 2011. And it’s not like this record is a rejection of that, but I think it’s more me really going along a course where I’ve always been going along. I can’t imagine this record really having too much appeal to casual listeners.Someone who reveres the stuff I had in mind when I was making [Poison Season] will probably despise this record. Because, let’s face it, my voice—as gently as I might want to croon—still sucks, and the words—even though I don’t write as much as I used to … it’s not like I’m spitting out these things in the same way—they’re still weird. As a genre workout, it’s a failure. Even within specific songs, very fucked up things butt heads—there’s a song, “Hell,” that’s a Michael Nyman-style chamber quartet that then kind of goes into a refrain, like a kind of end-chorus, that’s essentially like a Salvation Army version of Sinatra at the Sands, or maybe just full-on talk show walk-on music.A lot of it was accidental because for all of the meticulousness of making the record, it was done in a super-bizarre way where the person who was writing the arrangements and the band that was recording the songs didn’t really have any idea of what each other were doing. And they all kind of took the songs in these different directions, and in the end, the sounds kind of just got heaped onto the songs. And we tried to find a path through all of it that made sense. In that sense, that’s a very Destroyer way of working. I had no idea what it was going to sound like. But in the end I realized it was going to be much more of a fusion of different things that I only had half-control over instead of it being like some kind of perfect, twilight Nelson Riddle record.The reality is that a lot of the older records were just me ranting in a notebook.I could ask you about the whole concept/cohesiveness of it, but I will be totally honest, I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the bottom of it.You would probably be able to tell about twenty seconds in that I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I would just be making it up as I go along, so I don’t know, it sounds like you’ve got my number.Well, the press release they sent me digs into it pretty hard.I think it was mostly based around some rambling email not even intended for a press release. When I finally got around to reading it, I didn’t really recognize [the record] that they’re talking about.And in some ways, Destroyer has always been as much about how words sound and feel as their literal meanings or linear progress.The reality is that a lot of the older records were just me ranting in a notebook. Just, like, furious writings that I would then try to cram into some songs, and, you know, I would try and find what I would think would be the most melodious language in those rants, and they’d end up in a song, but it just does not happen that way anymore. Little phrases kind of just drift out of the air with melodies attached to them and there’s much more space between the words now, probably because there’s a difference in the way that I’m making songs. It’s more of a musical adventure than this kind of fucked-up literary project with music.I’m assuming you want the press release stuff kept out, right?Oh, no, I don’t give a shit. You really can write whatever you want.[[{"fid":"6690336","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"class":"file media-element file-media-original"},"link_text":"dream-lover"}]]