Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Things White People Say

About ten days ago, I sat down to write a blog post about white supremacy and this election. And then, our President-elect appointed a man who is chief architect of white supremacist propaganda news to his Cabinet, and then he chose another infamous racist, and another. And so, my strategy changed. What you see below is different than what I began with, and I have more to say on this in the days to come. I firmly believe that white supremacy is a driving force behind our recent election results, and to those who argue it was not the intended consequence, I argue that the emboldening of white supremacy is surely a consequence of it all the same.

I am not here to argue about all the myriad of things that fed into this outcome besides white people's need to be white above all else. I am an intelligent person and I understand the complexity of reality. But I believe that, even as liberals bemoan corporate interests and Wall Street, calling for a socialist revolution that they may or may not believe in themselves, a crucial truth is overlooked. All highly functioning democracies include profitable industries and a centralized system to manage money. Ours, however, has the unique attribute of being entirely founded on a platform of race-based chattel slavery and genocide. The irrational and paranoid belief in a white manifest destiny is not an artifact of who we used to be, it is at the very core of who we are. We can say the so-called "alt-right" are a fringe sector of our society, but white nationalism and white supremacy both have a long and accepted history here that relies on white people's continual denial that they exist. And so, we as a country elected a man to be our leader who has spent years viciously attacking the most internationally beloved and accomplished President in my lifetime, and he did it by saying, in essence, show me your papers, and, even, go back to Africa.

We have come such a short way.

Today I do not want to get bogged down into an intellectual debate over who is really at fault, and empathy, and understanding. I do not want to argue with progressives, or white women, or anyone, about capitalism, or misogyny, or the system. I want to bear witness to something. I am here to simply give some examples of what white people say online when they think only other like-minded white people are listening, or when they cease to care who is listening, because they have been given asylum and the assurance of freedom from consequences. On social media, with their names unhidden and pictures of their families included, white people say things about black people. I am not talking about on Breitbart, or in white supremacist pages and sites. I am talking about things that white people say, especially now, after this election, on social media pages that ostensibly have nothing at all to do with politics or race. Here is a little snapshot of what I have seen white people say, about black people in particular, and I am not even privy to anything resembling the worst of what is out there.

"Turn the hoses on them!"

"Crack babies with no conscience."

"This is a racist neighborhood because we're not stupid."

"We don't have the right to be white anymore."

"Calling them animals is actually an insult to the animal species."

"Why respect their dead? Animals!"

"They are a complete subculture and a cancer to our society."

"Something has to be done to keep them from our neighborhood."

"No more mercy, time for the old skinhead ways."


"You're a coal-burner."

"These mooks will not destroy another neighborhood."

"It's BS these apes can come here."

"Not to be racist, but black men scare me."

"Ask the Jews how backing down worked out."

"There's no more peace, it's race war time."

"I'll fly a proud rebel flag."

"Tear gas them all."

"A bunch of chongos."

"Black people are uncivilized."

"Keep those roaches out."

"I'm sure everyone on here has used the N-word."

"Animals go home."

"These animals need to be found and hung."

I am a cancer survivor and I can say this. America has a metastatic disease. You can cut out the solid tumor by targeting the "establishment" or any other given thing, and the microscopic cells of white supremacy that have invaded the rest of our body remain. And so, if you tell me that I need to find empathy or understanding, that I need to come together with these people in a show of unity and peace, if you tell me anything about acceptance, I will say that no, love never cured a cancer, but there are tools at our disposal (social, political, legislative, and activist tools) that have, and so we should be relentless in our commitment to using them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Beach Reading

I have never had ordinary taste in leisure activities. There are many examples of this, but one that sticks out in my mind is the fact that for as long as I can remember, I have sought out books to read in my spare time about genocide. There are a variety of reasons for why this is the case, but the reasons aren't relevant. While as a society we seem to collectively admit to one event when describing genocide--the Holocaust--(of course, there are vocal segments of our collective that deny the existence of that one as well), I personally am interested in the whole of what we have named as modern genocides, including genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. Our own history of genocide of Native and African Americans, while not considered "modern" (perhaps incorrectly) provides important context and can be related directly to these state-sanctioned tragedies around the world. There are other massive atrocities that killed millions but for specific reasons we do not refer to as genocide, though they used many of the same tactics and the same precursors can be seen in them, such as the regimes of Stalin or Mao or the past thirty years of rule in North Korea. I like to read about those too. While others could be found on the beach reading romance novels or mysteries, I might be reading a book on reconciliation policies in Rwanda. It's an eccentricity, I suppose. And this habit does not in any way make me a scholar or an expert, but it allows me to see patterns across the worst moments in human history.

It is easy to ask "how could such a thing happen" and equally easy to say "never again." It is harder to look at these events, which seem so different on their face, and find the precursors, the commonalities, that encompass the calm before the storm. In order to be considered genocides, these events cannot simply be "wartime" atrocities or the collective brutality of neighbor against neighbor, but must include an express state-sanctioned decision to rid the culture of a specific type of people. This inevitably involves exalting one religious, ethnic, racial, or other social group (such as the peasant class) above all others. But that is definitional; I'm interested in the tactical. From what I--again, I am no expert--can tell, modern genocides have several preceding factors in common.

1. A charismatic leader more interested in loyalty than policy. It's arguable that many of the genocides that have happened in modern history did not happen because the leader or group in charge of ordering the genocide was personally committed to the cause. Rather, genocide can be used as a tool to create and maintain absolute power in the hands of one or a few. Genocidal leaders know the worst sins of their followers--their deep prejudices against others based on race or religion--and use them to their advantage by creating complicity among the populace.

2. A split from the old ways of governing. Genocides are usually preceded by popular uprisings. Individual leaders or groups of leaders, such as what we see with military coups that lead to genocide, are plucked from unlikely places and seek to erase the culture built by the old established order. If elected, they are rarely elected by a majority (Hitler had 33% of the vote), and if unelected, they are rarely experienced governors. The regimes that build genocidal societies are uninterested in governing per se, they are interested in controlling, and in upholding their own unquestioned authority.

3. It might seem small, but many regimes that eventually lead genocides wear some type of uniform to identify themselves in a "you are for us or against us" play. The uniform might be brown shirts, "country" dress, certain types of hats, or some other form of self-identification not normally found in an open, democratic society. Of course, in strictly race- or ethnicity-based genocides, the supposed physical attributes of the ruling class have been used against those who are about to be oppressed: not having a certain skin color, hair color, nose or head shape, or having a physical disability can be an immediate sign of being "other" and therefore worthy of targeting. Language can be a uniform of sorts, as those not speaking the "dominant" language or those with "undesirable" accents are targeted as well.

4. Related to the above, in pre-genocidal societies see an increase in attempts at "passing" as people begin to be aware of the brutality to come. Vulnerable people who are able to "pass" attempt to hide their race, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, educational background, sexual preference, or other "mark" of the coming oppression.

5. The government in power keeps a list of the enemy. Modern genocides all rely on lists of enemies of the state or the race. Lists can be actual, or symbolic. They can include forced registries of people based on religion, nationality, or ethnicity. This was extremely effective in leading to the genocides of the Third Reich and Rwanda, for example. They can include things like forcing certain groups to identify themselves in public (stars of David) or forcing citizens to provide papers, even when providing such papers might be impossible (the current treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic). Lists are gleaned from the places the soon-to-be oppressed gather: universities (Cambodia) Lists of "enemies of the state" that are not based on ethnicity or race or religion are imperative to pre-genocidal regimes as well. No genocide is effective without keeping tabs on sympathizers of the oppressed and silencing, persecuting, or executing them as well.

6. A remarkably consistent way of dehumanizing the target of the genocide in speech. This is something that personally astonishes me: no matter the time in history, the continent, or the type of genocide, the language used to describe the group to be exterminated is the same: people are referred to as animals, or insects (apes, cockroaches), reduced to perceptions of their inherently criminal nature (savages, crooks, rapists), seen as unwholesome burdens on good society (a cancer, a blight, a pox) or considered inherent enemies of the state simply by nature of being who they are (traitors, terrorists). Further, the oppressors flip the language, forcing words that should be used to describe their actions onto the oppressed. Those who oppose them are "unreasonable," "racist," "totalitarian," "liars," and, even "genocidal."

7. Threats against political rivals. Before beginning to assassinate or imprison the opposition, a crucial aspect of pre-genocide seems to be the threat of doing so. This helps to normalize it once it happens. Political opponents are threatened with jail or legal action or are ousted from their positions, and opposing political parties are deemed illegitimate. This goes hand in hand with the focus of genocidal leaders on putting real power in the hands of a very few people, often family members. Truly dangerous demagogues rarely have a solid group of close advisors they can trust, because on some level, they know that most people know they are extraordinarily dangerous and unfit. While here we focus on family political dynasties (The Bush, Clinton, Kennedy families as example), that is a different problem than the leader in power at the time ensuring or attempting to ensure that family members are given state secrets and clearance and are put in positions of high power...because no one else can be trusted.

8. Repression or takeover of the press. While having a casual conversation over scotch the other night, my husband declared that every new form of telecommunications had a corresponding genocide, and we have yet to see one directly related to the Internet or social media age. I say that as a simple aside. Anyway, persecution of reporters and a dismantling of any press other than propaganda for the ruling regime might seem like obvious ploys of authoritarianism. There are other subtle ways to destroy the ability of the country to get accurate information, however. Some are related to the above tactics. Media outlets can be threatened with lawsuits or claims of "libel." Entire media industries can be labeled as corrupt ("Jew Media" is still a term used by white supremacists). Putting masters of propaganda in high political positions has been a precursor to every genocide named in the first paragraph of this essay. The radio was used so expertly in the Rwandan genocide that the entire venture took just 100 days. Other propaganda movements are slower burning, and some are total (North Korea, where no information is allowed to be transmitted in any way by almost anyone).

9. Criminalization of everyday activities. This sets the stage for what is to come. People are incarcerated for long periods of time for a variety of things that in ordinary circumstances would never be considered problematic: adults breaking state-sanctioned curfews; having jobs (depending on who you are or what you do); not carrying identification; being a drug addict (which is different than being arrested for possessing illegal drugs); having sex in certain ways or with certain people; the list is limited only by the imagination of those in power. I would include here the idea that every genocide carries with it a limit on reproductive freedom and the criminalization of those who do not comply. This can be done in extreme ways (mass rape as a form of genocide and population control or racial "cleansing," mass forced sterilization); or by forcing individuals to seek state approval to plan their families. I'm sure there are less obvious ways to criminalize reproductive rights, but I'm drawing a blank at the moment.

10. Normalization of genocidal and authoritarian language. While it has long been understood that there are three phases of genocide (attempts to exterminate a people, attempts to culturally exterminate or assimilate the survivors, and denial of the existence of the genocide), it seems to me that what we see in history is a denial that begins BEFORE the event itself. In every case mentioned, there were warnings and people willing to disseminate those warnings, sometimes for months or years beforehand, and in the case of Germany, for at least a decade. In every case, those people were brushed off as crazy, paranoid, unwilling to compromise, and, as, simply, wrong. All of the above are made normal through language, acceptance of policy positions and an intense focus on reiterating that the impossible will not come to pass. The denial continues through the genocide itself and is intensified once the event is over. This is what enables us in the United States to call our genocide of Native Americans a "war" and our genocide attempted through centuries of race-based chattel slavery an "economic condition of the South." It is what enables the world at large to give Turkey a pass and allow them to insist the Armenian genocide never happened, and the Armenians were in fact the oppressors. It leads to Holocaust-deniers, attempts to rewrite the history of what happened in Bosnia, a total erasure of Pol Pot from history books, and an insistence that Rwanda and Darfur were somehow "inevitable African problems." The denial wouldn't work if it didn't start early.

These are the types of things I think about on an abnormally warm and sunny day in November. Obviously, there are societies that exhibit all of the above and do not carry out mass exterminations, and there are numerous contextual things that make each genocide event unique. Comparisons that fail to take into account the specific place in time, socioeconomic factors, and corresponding world events might be spurious at best. I am no expert, obviously, and my interest in genocide is abnormal. It's an eccentricity, I know. It never seemed to serve much purpose but to make me aware of the worst possibilities. And so this essay is perhaps purposeless--it is just to say.

Today I sat down to write and I thought about this:

The years when I was single, before the intense love and corresponding terror that parenting wrought, when on a Saturday afternoon I would take public transportation through a troubled and diverse city to a beach in an historically gay neighborhood and lie on the sand and read a book or two on a subject that seemed out of place, on a day that seemed impossibly warmer and brighter than this.

This is just to say.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

To the Fathers Who Responded to Brock Turner's Father

Dear Fathers:

I have read your words. I believe you are good men, that your hearts are in the right place. You do not engage in victim blaming. You believe in the concept of autonomy over one's body. You want to believe in justice even when you know it hasn't been served. You are disgusted and appalled by the rapist and his father's lack of remorse and accountability. I hear you. But no matter your eloquence, no matter your intentions, my problem lies in the fact that I hear you. I hear you speak about a young woman who has been raped. I hear you say that this crime is "unspeakable," that the woman will forever live with "unthinkable trauma," that she is "horribly altered." I hear you say that her rapist has "robbed her of her dignity, her self-respect, her self-worth."

In a rare moment, and one for which I'm grateful, the victim of this crime had an opportunity to actually say how she has been impacted by it. There is no reason for conjecture; we can read it in its entirety. If she says that she has been robbed of things as a result of being raped, it is our responsibility to hear her and to believe her.

But I want to take you out of this particular crime, this particular moment. When you describe the impact of rape, you are not speaking about its impact on one woman who has already eloquently laid that out for us. You are speaking about rape in general, and its impacts. You are speaking about trauma, and what it does to a person. You are saying that because of this, such horrible crimes should be punished appropriately.

And this is where I stray from you.

First of all, rape is not unspeakable. Speak about it. Women do, all the time--when planning their buddy systems with friends, when talking about the "bad experiences" of their youth. Rape is not unthinkable. Think about it. Women do, all the time--when they are walking to their cars, sitting with their boyfriends, brushing their daughter's hair into a ponytail.

People are raped and they think about it and talk about it. Sometimes, they feel that other things are worse, more unspeakable and unthinkable. It's possible. It's their right. Sometimes, I am left with the feeling that men believe rape is the worst thing that could happen because men feel that primacy over their bodies and sexuality is a mark of what makes them men, and therefore, of what makes them WORTHY. You cannot imagine, can you, that a person could be raped...and thrive, and feel comfortable with herself. You are arguing that rape is a horrible crime because of what it does to a person. I am arguing that rape is a horrible crime. Period.

I don't know why this bothers me so much, but I want you to understand this: People experience sexual violence and hold on to every single aspect of their dignity, self-respect, and self-worth. Being raped does not mean you cannot have those things. Rape is not a crime because someone is robbed of those things. Rape is a crime because rape is a crime, regardless of how the person who experiences it processes it or lives her life afterwards. People who do feel robbed of those aspects of themselves are always justified in their feelings. But fathers--it is simply not for you to say that that is how it IS. It is not even for you to imply.

I have experienced a decent amount of trauma in my life, though far less than others, and even most. I have also learned over the years that I have not processed these things "Correctly." I have never been bothered enough, sad enough, distraught enough, depressed enough, anxious enough, traumatized enough, and I have never, ever--not ever--been ashamed, not even a little. This extends beyond sexual violation and violence, but it's true for that too. And because of this odd aspect of my nature (people have told me that I must have a chip missing), I have learned something interesting over the years.

We--and by we I mean all of us, society as a whole--expect, and even perhaps require, penance from those who suffer. We expect people who experience trauma to be forever altered by it, or at least temporarily waylaid, or we don't believe the trauma is real. We don't believe in injustice unless those on the receiving end are broken by it. And so, we only prosecute injustice if we feel that grievous harm has been done, and even then, as in the case you find so repugnant, we don't dole out the punishment accordingly.

We should not require victims of crimes to suffer in order to see justice.

When someone placed a gun at my temple, I was momentarily terrified, wondering if my life would be snuffed out on a half-empty elevated train car. That did not happen, and all that I lost was the contents of my bag. And yet, when talking to the police, I knew what I was supposed to do. I could tell by how they looked at us in the rear view mirror of the squad car that they were suspicious of us. We were both calm and conversational. I was not crying, or asking my boyfriend to hold me, or leaning on his shoulder. I knew that if we wanted sympathy, I should do all of those things, but I could not do them. When my neighbor had the police personally escort her every day for two weeks to the train after a chain had been snatched off of her neck, I knew it was because she was young and small and white and she cried, and instead of sympathy I felt nothing but fury. The crime that befell all of us--every single person on that train car was robbed at gunpoint--was so much worse, and yet nothing was ever done about it, because everyone else on the train thought the police weren't worth the trouble (true, in this case) and I couldn't cry; I watched an action movie with my ex boyfriend the next day as therapy instead and got on the same damn train the day after that. I never felt traumatized, and I don't think my boyfriend did either. I didn't change my behavior or avoid trains.

But it was armed robbery all the same. The police should not have ignored it because of my, or his, personality.

I've had cancer, but sometimes people have thought I haven't REALLY had it, not the way other people do, or at least it doesn't BOTHER me, right? Death might be coming for me whether I cry about it or not, whether I keep on doing things the same or not. The disease doesn't care about my temperment, and neither should you. When a physicians assistant told me she could reconstruct my nipple so that I wouldn't feel sad when I looked in the mirror, so I wouldn't feel "bad about myself," I know I should have said thank you, but I could not. Instead I said, "Don't presume that about me. Don't assume that I feel bad about myself, that I feel sad." I know it takes some women a full year to look at themselves in the mirror after having one or both breasts cut off. I think that is completely understandable. But it doesn't make my breast any less amputated, my cancer any less real, for me to rip the hospital gown off right after I stopped puking up my breakfast the morning after surgery, lean on my husband for help getting to the bathroom, look at my beat up, scarred, disfigured chest and shrug and say "huh. that's not so bad."

The fact that certain memories from being 15 has led me to a life of almost physical repulsion of drunk men does not mean that I have been unhappy, or lonely. Drunk men aren't that interesting, or necessary to a happy life. The fact that I do not watch basketball games in public, that I can't stand to be the only woman in the room, does not mean that I am broken, does not mean I don't love sex, or that I am ashamed or lacking dignity.

It also doesn't mean a crime wasn't committed against me that night.

When I had epilepsy, I wasn't ashamed. I didn't feel like less of a person because my brain didn't always cooperate. I didn't feel lessened by being in a wheelchair and being unable to walk. But you know what, that was a crime too. I was hit by a car, and it changed my life, and the woman who did it was never punished. The fact that I was happy, content, busy, isn't relevant.

We should not require those who suffer to prove it through their actions, especially when the suffering is brought on by the action of another person. When we do this, we are being selfish. I am sorry, but yes I mean YOU. We want so badly to separate ourselves from those who experience trauma. After all, if you survive something "unspeakable," and then carry on laughing and living out the promise of your life, what is the purpose of the whole struggle anyway? Do those who have had bad experiences also get to have good lives?

Rape is not wrong because it is a crime. Rape is a crime because it is wrong. It is a crime regardless of how the victim remembers it or experiences it. If the victim in this case or any other was happy the next day, having sex with her boyfriend, going to yoga, eating steak, cracking jokes, or any other possible series of reactions, it is not for us to say that she is hiding something, or in denial, or behaving strangely. It is none of our business how she behaves at all, and it is only our business how she feels insofar as we are human and should feel empathy when the situation warrants it.

The crime should be treated the same because it is a crime, and everyone knows it, whether we apologize for it collectively or not.

One of my favorite heroes to come out of our recent focus on/failure to understand sexual assault and rape is a young teenager named Jada, whose rape was recorded and shared online a few years ago. She was outspoken about the crime. She said this: "Everyone has seen my face and my body, but that is not who I am or what I am." And she is right. Terrible things can happen to your body, and not impact your sense of who you are. It doesn't work that way for everyone, and that is understandable too. But it is entirely possible to be content with yourself, happy, proud even, and for your rape to be just as real and the rapist just as deserving of severe punishment. This is so important, fathers. Do you understand what I am trying to tell you?

There is an incident from my childhood I will probably never write about, because it took years for me to understand it as sexual abuse, until I was sexually active myself. I will not keep it to myself out of shame, or guilt. I will keep it to myself because I honestly did not experience any trauma or negative impacts as a result of it--because I did not understand it as sexual abuse at the time. Once I could contextualize it, I was not traumatized that this thing happened to me, but it did explain some things I had always questioned. I did not feel sad or upset. I felt angry, again, not that it happened, when I was so little, but that the bastard got away with it. And once I could think about it with an adult understanding, I realized something: I didn't know it was abuse, but HE DID. My response or lack thereof is irrelevant to the fact of his crime.

I say these things to you, fathers, because you might very well have daughters. You might have daughters who are led to believe, through everything down to your good intentions, that their worth is determined by their behavior, their purity, their bodies, their ability to control what happens to them. I am here to tell you that is false. People are valuable, people are worthy, people are entitled to dignity, because people are people; our common humanity entitles us to dignity, and worth, and value. There is nothing that can happen to a person that we should assume would take those things from them. It happens, and people feel those irrevocable losses. But don't concentrate there. Don't assume that people who suffer, or experience trauma, are broken, or lost.

I will leave you with two examples of what I am trying to say. My husband, who is a father who never had a father, had a strange upbringing, to say the least. As part of that, he spent some time in his youth hungry. He was not hungry in that trivial sense, but in the sense where his growth was stunted, and on some level he will always be the 13 year old boy who looked forward to the butter sandwich he got to eat that day. And here is my question: what of it? Is that sad? Is poverty sad, especially when it is so relative? I mean, he didn't have rickets, he didn't die. Today, he will eat everyone's scraps of food, even at a party, even if it's the food from someone else's kid. He will say things to our kids at the dinner table like "have seconds! you never know when you might eat again!" and then he will laugh at himself as they laugh at him. He was hungry, not horribly altered. Chronic hunger is a social problem that impacts millions, not a mark of shame or evidence of being a lesser person. We don't feel sad for him. We just pass the plates down his way.

And now to me. When I was a child, I had epilepsy. I had 100 seizures a day without medication. The medication worked, which was wonderful, but it also poisoned my liver and caused me severe pain. Every six weeks I had to go in for blood tests to gauge the level of the poison. I was tiny when I was six years old, barely 30 pounds. Nurses would place butterfly needles in my arm and take multiple vials of blood. I loved to watch the blood go into the tubes; I found it fascinating. After these tests, my parents would take me to 7-11 and allow me to get a candy bar and a slurpee for being such a "trooper." I understood even then what a trooper was--a person who did what she had to do, without complaining or asking questions. Being a trooper was neither good nor bad--it just was. And so, I would always look forward to my treat, and I always picked a Milky Way bar and a red-flavored Slurpee. It took me years to realize that my parents gave me those "treats" to bring my sugar up, to make sure I wouldn't pass out, as so much blood had been taken from my tiny body.

I didn't know that, and I didn't experience 7-11 as a consolation prize for my medical condition. That candy-slurpee combination remains impossibly perfect in my memory. The reason for it did not detract from its sweetness. Once this year, at age 40, I did something that until now I've kept a secret. While my husband was working, the kids were at school, and I was working from home, I drove to 7-11. I bought a Milky Way and a wild cherry slurpee, a combination I hadn't tasted in decades. I stood in the crowded parking lot and thought about all the things that have happened through the years, all the losses, all the hard things. I waited for the realization that the innocence or sincere happiness of my youth was gone.

I would have to wait a while longer. It was just how I remembered--how I always chose to remember. No matter what came before, the melted chocolate on my fingers tasted just as sweet. The ice in my throat still made me close my eyes and smile.

Dear fathers, remember that. You are there to offer consolation, not to tell her how it feels.

Friday, October 23, 2015

When Women Die and it's Their Fault

Recently a suburban Chicago teacher who was in the middle of cancer treatment was stabbed to death by her husband as she was trying to leave the abusive situation.

Can you imagine a bigger monster than a man who purported to love a woman but instead abused and terrorized her regularly and then snuffed out her life while she was dealing with a terrible illness?

I can't, but apparently my local newspaper and society as a whole can: the real culprit is the woman herself. An article ran about this murder today in the Chicago Tribune. It's a fairly long piece, on page 9 of the front page section. The headline reads:

"Reluctance to Accept Help Called Warning Sign."

The article then begins with a description of a teacher who warned her students about unhealthy and abusive relationships. To me, that sounds like a woman who was trying to spare young people the pain of what she was living with, but I guess I'm just an idiot, because really what was happening was "as students, teachers and friends cope with the news of Cunningham's death, they are wondering how she fell victim to the abuse she warned others about."

Really? This woman is murdered and the community is wondering how she "ended up" in the situation? I'll tell you how: there are men who think that other people are their property, who will terrorize their own family members, significant others, or even strangers into submission. There are men who believe that they are entitled to total control over every aspect of another person's body and life and will use force and intimidation to get that person to submit out of desperation and fear. I want to believe that the community wasn't thinking that at all, that they were thinking things more along the lines of the student who called the murdered woman "a nonblood mom." I hope that it is just the media that chose to frame her death as some kind of avoidable mishap if she had just been enough of a fighter or a badass or whatever trope we throw out there to enable us to blame people for the horrible things that happen to them--especially when other people are at fault for the horrible things.

The article goes on to talk about how fear of involving the police is a "warning sign." It goes on to tell "you" what "you" should do if you "find yourself" in an abusive situation. The whole thing reads to me like a condemnation of women who are abused by men who choose to abuse them. Apparently these women don't do the "right things" to get away; there is no mention of men doing the right things to stop being horrible excuses for human beings. There's nothing about how "you" should not terrorize and abuse people and feel entitled to their personhood. Of course, even if "you" do the right things to get out of a situation (the murdered woman here had only been married to this man for a year and a half and spent the last year fleeing him at various times), you might end up dead (Cunningham had called the police and was picking up her belongings when she was murdered). I found myself hoping that the quotes attributed to a woman representing a domestic violence agency were taken out of context. The paper claims that this representative "insists that the violence will continue if victims stay" though no direct quote is given. So the violence continues because of the actions of the women? How hard is it to reframe that language? "The violence will continue as long as the abusive man continues to believe he has the right to engage in it."

A few pages later, another horrible story is related. This is the unbelievably sad and terrifying case of a man who chose to shoot a 4 year old girl in a road rage incident. He was arguing with her father when he aimed a gun into the backseat and killed the baby in front of her father and sibling. I remember when I was first married and my husband would yell at other drivers. I told him that was a dealbreaker for me, that you had to leave any kind of anger at home on the road, because everyone has a gun and everyone is crazy and even if that's not always true, it's not worth it to be in the one situation when it is. However, it seems obvious that anyone who would do something so horrible as what this man did to this little girl is an undeniable monster and no one is at fault for that but him. The headline for this story reads "Man Confesses to Killing Girl, 4, in Road Rage Case." Note it does not read "Fathers Chooses to Argue with Stranger, Daughter Ends up Dead." Nor should it, because her father is not at fault--the killer alone is at fault for this horrible crime.

Think about it. Think about the kid who killed a bunch of sorority girls because he was pissed women had scorned him (because, I'm assuming, he was violent, delusional, and filled with rage) and the countless websites and commentary from other angry men about how the bitches deserved it, about how this should be a lesson to women to learn to pay attention to men. Think about the video trending on YouTube showing a guy throwing a basketball at a girl and knocking her off her bike because she was "rude" to him when he talked to her. The majority of comments I've seen on that story say that she was "out of line" and "deserved" what she got. I can't even get into the victim blaming of every single rape or sexual assault case portrayed in the media. I am astounded that anyone reports such crimes. Who wants to be the subject of a headline about "Woman Exists in Public Space, Somehow Ends up Brutalized"?

I could say so much more, but I'm tired. So let me help you, Chicago Tribune. Your headline reads:

"Reluctance to Accept Help Called Warning Sign."

Take a page from your own book of headlines about horrible people who do horrible things and change your headline to:

"Abusive Man Stabs Cancer Patient Wife to Death, Kills Self, Two Children Left Motherless."

Friday, September 4, 2015

Chicago, You Are Trying to Break My Heart

I've never had a relationship as dysfunctional as the one I have with Chicago. I love Chicago in a way I'm not sure I've ever loved another person. I always have, even as a kid.

I grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood in an inner-ring suburb about a block outside the west side city limits. I grew up in a place where half the people were renters, where folks lived in apartments and two flats, where we had a newspaper stand on the corner where you could buy gum, where we played kick the can in the alley and walked to the corner store to buy a bottle of pop for a quarter. I grew up in a place where no one was pretentious enough to give a damn if you called it pop, or soda, or coke, but would gladly give you half as long as he could keep the bottlecap. I grew up walking everywhere and taking the el on dates. Those dates involved the el, first and foremost. Then maybe walking around State street when it was closed to traffic and buying churros y chocolate from a street vendor, but maybe not, because we didn't have money. I grew up bored as a teenager because teenagers are all either bored or saddled with too much adult suffering or sometimes both, but I went to clubs on the north side at 15 and hung out in coffee shops in old converted loft buildings in Wicker Park before it was a hot place to live and made out in cars parked at North Avenue beach after is was closed. I had some limited opportunities to visit museums on field trips but that isn't what I loved about Chicago. I grew up in a place where everybody's momma made sure you knew how to act. I grew up with hopskotch and double dutch and busy streets where a neighbor kid died in an accident while riding her bike, where I almost died when I got hit by a car, where the cops didn't necessarily care about you, where things weren't easy or rosy so that's not where I'm coming from in case you were wondering.

I left, and went to Minnesota for college, which might has well have been Mars, and that's how it is for kids who can't imagine a different station in life than the one they've always known. I wrote a poem once about how beautiful Minnesota was, how quiet and organized, and how I would never go back. I work for a company that is based in Minnesota. I still live in Chicago. Minnesota was many things I couldn't understand, it was whiter and more passive aggressive than any world I knew, it was patchouli and never saying what you mean. I've been to a lot of places, mostly in the U.S., because people who grow up in working class neighborhoods rarely travel the world even when they can because we weren't brought up for it to occur to us. I never got on a plane until I was 22. But since then I have been in many different cities, and I have never been to a place where I feel at home with the people the way I do here. How many places would accept a perpetually angry little woman who swears too much and makes wild hand gestures all the time and has been giving the side eye since 87 but would give you her left arm, albeit after giving you crap about it? That's what Chicago is to me.

I came back after college and lived in my old neighborhood for a time. It wasn't the same. I know someone famous warned me it wouldn't be, but I'm stubborn and I didn't listen. There was more money, more homeownership, less of a Sesame Street feel. Folks were worried about kids "hanging out" in the streets. I left a condo association meeting after saying those kids were just doing what I used to do, and if you are worried there's a problem, why don't you walk up and say something? I was the 23 year old confronting white suburban kids shooting up heroin in our alleys because they thought it didn't matter if you did that in what they considered to be a "black" neighborhood. I was the one yelling about take your shit back to your daddy's basement in Schaumburg. I was the one confronting the kids other people were afraid of to see what they were doing only if it seemed like they were doing something stupid, and that's what it was, every time, just some stupid harmless crap, because the real problems and the real violence that everyone who had never dealt with was afraid of was happening somewhere else, even if only a few blocks away.

In Chicago, blocks matter. Blocks matter in a life or death sense. Neighborhoods matter, and we romanticize that, though we shouldn't. Neighborhoods matter in large part because of the deeply entrenched segregation of this city, which is emblematic of the deeply entrenched racism of this country. Parochialism is a legacy of our city's history, and we are proud of it, though maybe we shouldn't be.

Neighborhoods matter because everyone wants to own a piece of something, when we should be willing to give that up, but what we're left with isn't anything or at least it seems like loss. We have fiefdoms here, we have more councilmembers than New York, we have wars that play out in the streets as surely as wars play out in the streets around the world. But the things that happen here happen here SPECIFICALLY, on this block, in that ward, and we have some kind of false pride if it doesn't happen to us, some of us suffer and others simply look away. And instead of realizing the damage we are doing, we've fooled ourselves into believing that being tight knit is better than being equal.

I live in a place in Chicago, this place I am trying so hard not to leave, where I have lived for eleven years. I live on the far south side of the city; I have two homes here and my kids were born and raised here and we have wonderful friends here. But we are still not "from" here. I'm not sure we ever will be. People were born here and they die here. It's very...Chicago. And here in the neighborhood I call home, we suffer from the same tyranny of low expectations that all Chicagoans suffer from to some degree. A new restaurant opens up and they don't even answer the phone or set up voicemail. I try to support a neighborhood restaurant but they charge me for three lunches when there are only two people there and then try to argue the point. The schools are stripped of their resources and people just go to Catholic schools instead. We have an opportunity to elect a progressive Mayor and we don't do it because people here love a bully. We elected one for Governor too; the main argument against the old one being that he was too "soft." People get jobs they might be good at but that they only got because they know someone. Everyone does a little something on the side. Everyone knows a guy, and wants you to use that guy not because he's the best, but because they know him. I'm reading a book called City of Scoundrels that describes Chicago's politics in the 1800s and damn, nothing has changed. Nothing, in over 100 years.

So why do we stay? We stay because there is something about Chicago, and the people from Chicago. I've never met people anywhere else like the people I've known here. And I am no romantic, I am not into this second city complex. I don't give two damns what New York or some other place thinks, I don't feel this way because of some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. If you are reading this and thinking "See? I told you so!" I didn't write this for you.

And while I love my bad boy, I know he doesn't treat me right. He is violent, and flashy, he throws our money down the toilet or spends it on his friends. He lies and he loves a grand gesture. He isolates me and tries to hold me down. He tells me that this is all I deserve, and I believe him. He will tear down an airport at midnight and when the world can't believe he did it he will give the millionaires who are stranded in their private planes the finger. And we will love him for it, even when he was, at the same time, making deals in order to keep the peace that would ruin us later. He only cared about us when he was with us. But man do we love him, this bad boy Chicago. He is handsome, and strong. His butt looks great in those jeans. We've seen things with him we couldn't see with anyone else. He's hilarious, he's great in bed, we know him for five minutes and we've known him all our lives. And we know what he is, and we damn him for it, but you know what we don't want to hear?

We don't want to hear about him from the other woman. Look, distant suburbs and places where you say you've gone to "get away." You can talk trash about him, but you are sneaking into his bed at night. Chicago is your gigolo, your dirty little secret. You talk about how good it is where you are, and we agree with you. Because he has made that possible. No one hates Chicago's world class universities, museums, restaurants, transit, skyline, or job opportunities. No one hates the amenities that exist in neighboring towns simply because of their proximity to this powerful, complicated mess. When the proverbial stuff hits the fan, you show up at Northwestern or University of Chicago hospital to take care of business. (As an aside, this is a very real truth for me. As I sat there in my numbness and confusion and grief back in 2010, I was asked to choose oncologists and surgeons, and so I did, though somewhat randomly. And I ended up with one of the top breast oncologists in the world and a few of the top surgeons, because that's how it is when you have access to services other people travel hundreds of miles to receive). You love him because he's a jock, even if he's bound to perpetually lose, and jocks are mostly fun on the weekends, right? You love him for his money. Without him, your position in the swamps and corn of old would be nothing. This is the economic engine that drives the region, and we know it pisses you off, but it's true. The region is strong because there's a reason to have a region here and that reason is Chicago. When you complain about him, it's like when Ann Arbor complains about the University. When you say he will go the way of Detroit, we wonder what part you mean: the white flight, the abrupt abandonment? The loss of the single industry, when we have so many? We know that part of your issue arises from how much you depend on him too. We agree with everything you say, but we would rather be the ones to say it. Because we are with him, all the time, we come home to him. And we know he is as much at fault as you when he lets you use him for his charms and give nothing in return.

For me, love and Chicago are forever intertwined. I've been in love four times, three by age 18, once at age 27, and I kept that one. Each time, my memories of falling in love are directly tied to my memories of loving Chicago in a specific way in a specific place and time. Even when it wasn't love, Chicago has come to bed with me all my life. I gave a guy a second chance after he was insanely late to a first blind date because he was sheepish when he got there, didn't make fun of me for drinking a Rolling Rock, and didn't say a word when I told him I'd already wolfed my cheeseburger by myself but if he wanted, we could stay and watch the game. I've never had a successful relationship with someone from a wealthy neighborhood or background. I once dated a man who said he admired me because of my conviction about Chicago. He had just moved back to the city after leaving it, said he couldn't suffer the place he had been, and he needed to get back. And where was this Godforsaken place? San Francisco. I dated another man who hailed from Indianapolis, who had been involved in the streets in Chicago and not in a romantic way. He explained that he got into that life because "It was thrilling. Everyone knew your name. It was like being a celebrity." He was 28, handsome, fit, getting a PhD, working two jobs and coaching soccer when I met him. He died when he was 30. They found his body in Lake Michigan. It's like that here.

I've been reading a wonderful mystery series that is the closest thing to my city affair I could imagine. In this place where the novels are set, people are lusty and irrational. They swear, the phone rings and their first thought is "why are you busting my balls?" They insult each other, they become friends within a moment's meeting, they love food and sex and the water that surrounds them. The corruption and violence, the fact that people do what they want and no one ever expects anything to change, are part of what makes their love real. I read these books and I think, you understand, don't you? This place sounds like home. I hear you Andrea Camilleri. I see my love in yours, and I don't know what that says about me, since your love is...Sicily.

I was going to write an essay about our tyranny of low expectations, our acceptance of corruption and cronyism, the record tax hike coming our way, our failing school system, the crime, our seeming paralysis. But I've written this instead. Chicago, everything I know about you tells me I should leave you. You are trying to break my heart. People who aren't in love with you will never understand; they will think I'm a fool. I don't know how to quit you, and I don't know how to explain that.

But let me try, with just one scene.

Chicago is that: a city of scenes, specific people and places. I grew up here and I cut my professional teeth here too, in the true Chicago style, as an activist working with a Coalition of like-minded activists to combat economic inequality in our city and country. Chicago made that activism; it was born here. I can't for the life of me figure out why we cannot use that legacy to fix our own back yard. The best people I've known in my life were those people I met when I did that work, and that's the truth. And the best way I can explain why it breaks my heart to leave or think about leaving is to tell you this story.

It must have been the year 2000, or 2001. The economy was booming here, and elsewhere. Liberal politicians who would later bemoan the banking system were right there in bed with banks at the time and loving it. But there's always a shadow, even on the loveliest day. Times weren't good everywhere, the boom time wasn't booming for everyone. We were fighting predatory lending practices before anyone else had heard of them or cared, a full ten years before the economy's official fall. In this specific scene, we were fighting usurious payday lending practices, which were completely unchecked by regulation in most states at the time, and in our City were similar to the gangster loan shark shops of old. We went looking for people who cared, who would help. Congress wasn't important to us, because this was a state regulation issue, not a federal one. We planned a meeting with our numerous community organizations, and a single State Senator agreed to meet with us.

We worked in one of the landmark skyscrapers of the city, the Old Colony building on Dearborn and VanBuren. We had a frosted glass window on our office door, we had real fire escapes behind windows that actually opened, and the elevators often didn't work. It was like something out of a noir film from the 50s. Today, that building has been renovated and turned into dorms for college kids. But at the time, we worked there, and we held our meeting in a conference room on the top floor of the building. It was dusty and the furniture was ancient. It was almost embarrassing, that space, and us being in it. This Senator sat on a folding chair with his elbows on his knees, listening intently to us. He represented Chicago, the south side of Chicago. He had the most honest handshake I could remember from a politician, and I spent a lot of time with politicians then, from locals to the Speaker of the House in Congress. He didn't flinch when we had to pause every six or so minutes as the el sped past, practically inside the room itself, the roaring and shaking and rumbling making it impossible to speak. He sat there as if this was as real and important a meeting as any. We shook hands once more and left, and how could we know? How could we know that years later, that man would be elected, fairly and irrefutably, no matter what his detractors would say, to the highest office in the land...twice?

That is the Chicago I know, that I love and think of and will one day miss: the dust and decay, the noise and the broken infrastructure, the history, the gorgeous expanse available just outside the window, the architecture unparalleled in the world, the knowledge that someone made a living off of others' suffering, the people who made it their life's work to fight that injustice, the way that the future President Obama looked each of us in the eye and nodded his head. Oh Chicago, my Chicago, look what you leave us with: the beauty, the horror. The struggle. The promise.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Duggars and the "Inevitability" of Rape

I'm not one for reality television. I've never watched a single reality TV show. It seems an oxymoron, somehow. If I want to watch real life, I can actually experience real life, and if I want to learn something from watching programming about real life that is important for me to understand, I can watch documentaries.

I'm also not a religious person. And I'm a politically liberal person. Everyone knows that already. It's not of interest here, except to say that I am about to disagree with something that I've seen popping up all over social media recently from people who purport to think like me.

If you read the above, you will know that I have never had any interest in the Duggar family, their lifestyle, or their show. I don't care about who is getting married or having babies or how many. That way of life is completely alien to me and not interesting enough for me to seek out for further review. When it came out a few days ago that one member of this family had committed sexual assault--incest--against family members and then everyone and their brother helped to cover it up, I found it repulsive, and I recognized the hypocrisy in the crowing the family apparently did about family values and worrying that all the gay folks would molest their children.

But I guess I am in the minority here, because there is something that I did not feel. I didn't feel that self-satisfied aha moment of "it was only a matter of time."

I keep seeing all these articles and blogs and statements cropping up that are along the lines of "I told you so," and "I'm not surprised," and "it was almost to be expected" and "this is what happens when children are raised in isolation" and "this is what happens when we don't teach kids about sex" and "fundamentalism leads to this."

No. I'm sorry, but NO.

The only thing that leads to this is that some people are selfish, manipulative sex offenders and society doesn't care enough to punish them. There is nothing inevitable about rape or incest in any situation. Can I say that again? RAPE IS NEVER INEVITABLE.

Rape is always a result of a series of decisions. It is not a mistake or a transgression. It is not the result of repressed sexuality or confusion or curiosity.

Look, people. Most 14 year old boys are not having sex, regardless of their sexual orientation, family upbringing, or access to their little sisters. They are as clueless about sex and isolated from the reality of it ever happening to them as the day they were born, for the most part. They are horny and curious and obsessed. What do most of them do? Fantasize. Masturbate. Play aggressive sports.

They don't molest their sisters.

Let's take this further. Boy gets curious, lives in isolated fundamentalist family. Why, naturally, he does the following: Waits until his sisters are asleep. Sneaks into their bedroom. Sticks his fingers inside their bodies. Hopes they will never tell.

Of course!


Those who claim that this is the natural result of any lifestyle or religion are not saying anything so different than those who say that when boys get together in groups, especially if they are drinking, they naturally rape people (frat parties). I guess there are no other options left. Rape must be an act of self defense! THERE WERE NO OPTIONS LEFT. Let's see--what if we decided as a society that the sororities of the world would be the ones to host parties? Do you think suddenly boys would form alliances and buddy systems beforehand so that they could avoid being sodomized by beer bottles because THAT'S JUST WHAT HAPPENS WHEN GIRLS GET TOGETHER AND GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS!

There is no lifestyle or religion that can justifiably explain why someone would sexually assault a family member. It is not inevitable, for anyone including the Duggars, and people who are using this as an I told you so moment are completely missing the point, in my opinion.

Would it be helpful for girls to be taught that their agency and sexuality is as important as boys? Yes, and we fail miserably as a society in doing that. Perhaps the Duggars are worse than most of us in this regard. Perhaps not. But let me take that argument a step further as well. Is the notion that if the Duggar girls were taught more about their bodies and sex and owning their own identities, they could have prevented their brother from being a sex offender? Even in this restrictive, isolating environment...those girls DID tell on their brother. It's kind of amazing that they did that. But honestly, what more could they do? Are people really arguing that children can prevent sexual assault from an older and stronger person WHO IS SUPPOSED TO LOVE AND PROTECT THEM by saying: "hey! that's my body! stop!" You guys. This is their BIG BROTHER. I cannot imagine any child from any family reacting to that situation--remember the situation, with the sneaking in when he thought they were asleep, with the planning and the foresight and the absolute purposefulness of it all--with anything other than disgust, fear, and, probably...silence.

I have an older brother. When we were adolescents, I'm pretty sure we each thought the other was a eunuch, a pest, and a friend ALL AT THE SAME TIME. We spent a lot of time ignoring each other, pretending the other one didn't date, and occasionally bonding by watching Eddie Murphy's Delirious together. My brother didn't date until the middle of his junior year in high school, when I had had breasts and a figure and boyfriends for years, and you guys: HE SURE AS HELL NEVER CAME NEAR ME. And his friends who I saw as funny but dorky and ridiculous? They bonded over things like Atari baseball, table football, and sailing accidents. The boys I knew as a teenager did things like get drunk and ride their bikes around aimlessly, practice with the band in the garage, eat 17 pizzas. I've written before about how I learned it was possible for boys you trusted and thought were friends to turn against you and do something that would forever alter the trajectory of your life--but THAT WAS NOT NORMAL. That experience was NOT the inevitable outcome of boys drinking together, of me being the only girl in the room. That situation was a series of decisions made by selfish, entitled people who fed off of my terror and laughed about it.

No, it was not inevitable. And there sure wasn't anything I could have done to deserve it. And there sure as HELL isn't anything I should have been expected to do to avoid it, as if it were my job to do that, though I tried for years to recreate the possibility of avoiding such situations, and 24 years later I still can't be the only woman in the room or watch a basketball game with more than 3 people.

Children's, girls', women's, experience is used against them as often as their innocence in sexual assault cases. You don't get some magic wand that stops people from preying on you because you know your body and are comfortable with your sexuality. Take it from me--please, do. I was very comfortable with myself, and outspoken, and I made decisions and related them clearly. And I was sexually abused, what I now understand to be assaulted, and harassed. I drove my grandfather around in my mother's car with my keys dangling from a keychain that read "no condom no way" when I was a teenager and I felt no shame and that did not stop me from having horrifying experiences. It didn't stop me from remaining silent. It didn't stop me from assuming I would be blamed, maybe because of my comfort with myself and my body and everything else.

Sexual abuse happens to all kinds of people, from and within all kinds of families. Most families do a terrible job of dealing with it and protecting victims. Most victims walk around with the assumption of blame, no matter how they were raised. Girls should not expect to be assaulted because of their own ignorance, innocence, experience, or social or family position. Boys should not be expected to assault for any of the same reasons.


So, journalists and bloggers of the world, stop saying it is. Stop saying "I'm not surprised," or "this is what happens." No, it's not--it's just not. There is no circumstance in which ignorance, isolation, confusion, or curiosity inevitably leads to forcible incest. There are eighteen other Duggar children, all of whom must have felt curious and sexual if they are old enough, and they did not sexually assault other members of the family. One person did that, because of decisions he knowingly made, and other people helped him get away with it, because of decisions they knowingly made.

In that sense, the Duggars are like everyone else. We don't take these situations seriously as a society, and we are still finding subtle ways to explain the perpetrators' behavior and make assumptions about how the victims could have stopped the abuse. We are all guilty in perpetrating that crime.

Rape is never inevitable.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Today's Kids: Free Range or Caged?

Sometimes, being a parent is terrifying. It's hard to think about all the terrible things that could happen to your heart as it walks around outside of your chest. Diseases, accidents, bullies, pedophiles, murderers, fires, oh my God FIRES, my absolute worst fear. Today, these normal, even rational fears are compounded by a relatively new fear: the fear of being persecuted for letting your kid do stuff. I can't really wrap my mind around the reality of parents being arrested because their 6 and 10 year old children walked home together from a park, or a mother having her 9 year old daughter taken away because she played in a public park while mom was at work. I grew up in the era of latch key kids, when even though many women stayed home, they simply did not accompany their children to, well...almost anything.

Parents like me, those in their 30s and 40s, are often up in arms about the difference between our childhoods and the childhoods of our children. Our generation sometimes decries how our kids are soft, or helpless, too structured, too in control over the family. On the other side, parents argue that the world is different now, it is less safe, people are crazy, you guys the INTERNET, hookup culture, and on and on.

I feel like both of these views are too black-and-white and therefore I feel the need to call a little bit of bullshit on the way we've framed this debate.

On the one hand, there is an argument for "free-range" parenting, a style steeped in the notion that kids need to learn creativity, independence and resourcefulness, that the world is a mostly safe place and our kids are smart enough to traverse its varied roads. On the other hand, there is an argument for "helicopter" parenting, which points out the horrors of modern society that we see in the news every day: cyberbullying, school shootings, child abductions, car accidents, drugs.

But neither of these views comes close to describing how life really is for kids and families.

In part, I think that our collective fear of "just think of what could happen" is borne out of the sensationalism of the media. However, let's be honest. If you are saying that the world is mostly safe and friendly and that the violence witnessed in the media is overblown, you are speaking from a very specific vantage point. I live in a city where life is absolutely, despairingly dangerous for kids. It is not that way for my kids, but my kids are not the only ones who matter. It is no more my place to falsely transfer the fear of other people's violent reality onto my kids than it is to act as if that reality doesn't exist just because it doesn't affect my family on a daily basis. I find it infuriating that parents are being arrested for letting their kids do normal things not so much because I feel it is unfair to those parents, but because I feel like it is a complete waste of resources that could be better spent on kids who need intervention. This should not be a debate about whether allowing your kids to walk somewhere alone makes you a bad parent. Focusing there ignores the fact that there are kids who do EVERYTHING alone. There are kids who are absolutely, criminally neglected by their parents and guardians. There are kids who are abused and prostituted by their parents and guardians. There are so many kids who are paying the price for adults' bad decisions, and so many other kids who live with caring and careful adults who have no control over the larger impacts of the societal structure where they live.

I mean, what to say about my husband? I do not want to be glib and say, oh, we were children of the 80s. Gabe should not have been left to fend for himself, to go hungry, to have to find adults who would raise him, no matter where they lived. My husband at 16 should not have had to ask a friend's mother to take him in so he would not be homeless. He should not have been around so many drugs and shifted around from one place to another. So many kids I knew should not have been in those situations.

Walking home from the park? Please. What happened to real problems?

It's this classism that bothers me, this focus on the idea that people in privilege so often are able to have: the world is either GOOD or it is BAD. By engaging in the RIGHT behaviors and by being the RIGHT kind of people/parents, we can avoid all the BAD things in the world.

This is where I detract from the free range parenting philosophy, even while I sympathize with it. I will never teach my children that the world is an inherently safe and happy place. I would no more know how to do that than fly to the moon. And yet, I fully intend to allow by 6 and 9 year old children to walk home from school together next year--alone. This would shock many people who live around me. Parents often don't let their kids play outside if they aren't there. I used to do that, of course, when they were smaller. Now I send them out, though I haven't yet started allowing them to go to the park alone. Now when I say ALONE, I should qualify that. I rarely did anything in public as a child ALONE. There were always other kids around, if only my brother or one other little girl. Few kids I knew went places ALONE. You might be five years old and walking four blocks without your parents, but there were three of you.

I do not intend to give my kids independence and freedom in order to teach them that the world is safer than many people seem to believe. I actually think the world is pretty dangerous. I just think you have to learn to live in it, within reason.

I fully believe that in many ways, the world is safer now than it was when I was a kid. Hell, the existence of cellphones alone brings comfort to parents who can actually find out where their kids are and whether or not they're all right. Chicago is unbearably violent in many neighborhoods, and yet it was more violent in the 70s and 80s. I grew up in the time of Jeffrey Dahmer. Kids today have language to use about sexual harassment, abuse, they are actively encouraged to confront issues related to bullying. I just don't understand people of my generation who believe that things are so DIFFERENT and BAD today when the world was so bucolic in our youth.

I don't understand it, because it wasn't like that for me.

My mother was fairly protective. Friends often thought she was over the top. They didn't understand why I would not go against her wishes when she told me I couldn't do something. I'd get away with it, we won't tell. HA! Clearly they didn't understand that mother radar. I used to argue with my mom about some of these things. Sometimes I didn't bother to argue. I mean, I wanted a bike and thought we should have bikes like normal kids but a kid a few doors down got killed while riding his bike, so that argument rarely left my mouth. Maybe I wanted to be left alone at 6 to get ready for school by myself, but a family of kids across the street were left to do that and the two year old died in a house fire because his siblings couldn't get him out. So, I didn't argue that point, either. This one was common in my house though: Why could my brother go to the park with his friends to play baseball when they were 5 years old without an adult and I couldn't do that?

Because you're a girl, my mother would say.

She didn't try to make it fair, to treat us the same. It pissed me off to no end. Today we would argue that little boys could be preyed upon as well! Look at the Catholic church! And yes, that's true. But I would argue that in some ways, we have given more press to abuse against boys; abuse against girls often goes unspoken or unnoticed, as if it is EXPECTED. And now is the part where I can tell the story about how it was unfair of my mom to say that to me because pedophiles are rare, they aren't out there, that doesn't happen...

But it does, and it did. I was playing in front of my house with a friend when I was 8 years old. My whole family was home. A man came up to us and I instinctively started to walk backwards towards the house. I didn't trust people, not even then. I thought about what my mother had told me: "What reason would a strange adult have to talk to you? You are a child. You have nothing to offer." "What if they need help, or directions?" "Why the hell would they go to YOU for help? They would ask an adult. You are a child. You can't help." This man told us...that he had lost his puppy. Oh, that doesn't happen in real life, you say. But of course it does. Because it works. My friend started to talk to him. My mother came barging out of the house, and he ran away. She drew a picture of him for the police, who promptly did nothing.

I've written here about being molested by mechanics when my family was standing close by, about having a gun put right at my temple when I got robbed on the Green line, about getting hit by a car while walking home from school at 9 years old and almost dying. I've written about sexual harassment and abuse, being accosted by strangers, being stalked (have I written about that? It happened, when I was 16. A kid would call the house drunk and belligerent, screaming obscenities at my mother and I and detailing everything he knew about me, what I wore, how I walked to school, who my friends were, and she finally called the cops when he screamed PUT THAT ANOREXIC BITCH ON THE PHONE and when the cops came they did, well, nothing, and proceeded to act like I should've seen that one coming), having seizures in public places.

Life is hard. The world is scary. We have to live in it.

My mother did not stop me from doing things because I had epilepsy. I was not allowed to swim in a pool alone, for example, but that is also common sense. Once I got over being afraid of walking to school after my car accident, I was back to the same route with the same group of kids who almost witnessed my death. I was allowed to drive to my job and the mall while that kid was stalking me, though I know it scared my mom to death to let me do that. Hell, when I think about some of the things she let me do, I'm shocked. I went to a lakehouse alone with my boyfriend on my 16th birthday; he drove across two state lines and we spent the day there with no parents and she KNEW that. I went camping at 17 overnight with a 19 year old boy I had known for two weeks. I took the el with friends at 13, 14. I went to clubs on the north side of Chicago at 15. I was babysitting for three other kids, unrelated to me, at age 11--in someone else's house. And yeah, bad things happened then too. I got an obscene phone call once when babysitting when I was 12. I didn't know what to do, so I called my mom, and she came over and came to the conclusion that it was a call from the kids' DAD, and I never babysat for those people again.

I guess I was wrong: I did know what to do. I called a parent and said I needed help. I want my kids to know to do that too.

I'm just saying--I know that bad things can happen to kids. I know there are terrible people out there. I don't want my kids to have to be hard and distrustful and to learn to be mean like me, but I do want them to live in the world that we live in, and to gain independence in it and figure out what to do if something happens. I have no interest, however, in forcing this on them as some kind of character building experiment. I'm not going to send my kid on the subway just to prove a point. My kids have no idea where to go or what there is to do on the subway, but walking home from school or to a friend's house is a different matter. Leaving my just-9 year old home for 20 minutes when she was sick with a fever while I picked her brother up from school was reasonable. Giving her a phone and teaching her when and how to use it is reasonable. Allowing her to go on sleepovers or spend the weekend with a friend's family at age 7 is reasonable (she cried that first time, she missed us, she survived). Leaving the pool the second she gets in the water for swim practice is reasonable. I will never tell her to talk to adults if she feels comfortable with them (not that I would need to--she feels uncomfortable around all adults she doesn't know). I have told her the thing about being useless to adults. I have told her that when adults she knows, such as our friends or her parents friends, talk to her, she should notice something: they are polite to her, they are fond of her, but really? They don't want to talk to her. They want to talk to ME. or Gabe. Just like she wants to talk to her friends, not their parents. Someday, that will change. Maybe when they're 16 or so. But not now.

And at what point, as parents, do we cease to wish the world weren't hard for our kids? Why do we assume that the feeling goes away when they are grown? Is that why we try so hard to protect them from everything when they're small?

Don't you think my mother wishes she could take my cancer away, even though I was 34 years old and a mother myself when it reared its ugly head? Don't you think she would like to take my place? She has said that to me, many times. And then she has said, but I can't. I know I can't. Think about how many times I have cheated death. Each time, I was someone's child. It happened as a child, and it happened as an adult, and there really wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about any of it.

We want to protect our kids from everything, but we can't. We want them to be able to be trusting and naive and happy all the time. Well, we are supposed to want that. I don't know how to want that for my kids because I don't remember being that way. But maybe what we should want is something in between, something that isn't a debate but an acknowledgment of reality: our children are children, but they are also people. They do not belong to us. We are responsible for them but we also have responsibilities TO them, to teach them how to value themselves and their bodies and their safety and to recognize the autonomy and value inherent in other people. While I don't want my kids to experience some of the bad things I have experienced, I realize that from a very young age, I was extremely empathetic. Bad things had already happened to me and I knew I didn't deserve it and I looked out for other people, even when I was little. I wasn't embarrassed to stand up for myself or anyone else. I wasn't of the opinion that the world was particularly safe, or fair. And yet...I was happy, and met wonderful people and lived an interesting life. I learned how to go through terrifying things without feeling particularly terrified.

I don't think our goal as parents should be to try to shape our kids' understanding of the world into something foreboding or whimsical. I definitely don't think our goal as parents is to call the cops whenever we see kids living their lives, especially if we are allowing ourselves to live in a little bubble where the worst thing that happens to kids is they are left to stroll by themselves. I think our goal as parents is to do the hard work of raising children in the real world, as it is, right now. Our world is devastating and it is magical, it is exhilarating and it is painful, it is astonishing in the experiences it allows us and that it shields from us. We are here to love them even when we cannot protect them, to instill in them a sense of their own self worth as well as the worth of other people, no matter their circumstances. We are supposed to be here for them, whether life is good or bad, and it is our job to never, ever look away--no matter what.