Thursday, June 30, 2005

Not In Our Name

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Want to help? Contact the Center for Constitutional Rights

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Make Him Tell Their Stories

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This is Robert Raymond. He died in 1916, in the trenches of France. He was my great-grandfather. His daughter, Hilda, will be 89 this year. She was born after he died. My great-grandmother, Edith, Hilda's mother, died at the age of 37, leaving my grandmother an orphan.

I have this photo of Robert, and I stare at it, trying to imagine what his life was like. I can't ask my grandmother; she never met him. And I try to picture the day that Edith received the news that the man whose child she was carrying had died in the war.

World War I was a colossal waste of life. It was a war that had no purpose, no planning, no meaning. It was The Great War. It cost Europe a generation of young men.

As far as I know, Robert Raymond's story has not been told. He has vanished; I'm not even sure where he is buried. Three generations later, all I have is this tiny photograph. I search his face for clues. What made him laugh? Cry? What were his dreams? What was his childhood like? When he was in the trenches, did he have a chance to reflect on what he was doing, why he was there; did he know he'd never get home to England again?

I wish that someone would sit down with George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and make them look at the photographs of the 1700+ American dead in this war. I'd like them to have to talk to someone who loved each of those men and women, hear a story from his or her childhood, or what he or she liked to do, what he or she wanted to be, what made him or her laugh. I think the price for being Commander-in-Chief is to be haunted by the people you have sent to their deaths. I think the fact that you told lies in order to start this war should be the kind of black spot on your soul that all the invocation of God and country and Jesus cannot erase. I think you should have to wear a letter "M" for murderer, that in your wallet, when people ask to see photographs of your children, you should be forced to bring out a picture or two of soldiers you sent to their deaths. You should have to tell their stories.

"These are my children," you should have to say. "These are my kids, and I am responsible for their deaths."

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Independence Day Meme

I think this would be a great idea for July 4th this year: Declaration of Independence.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Sex, the Sacred, and Me

Attempting to find the connections between the sacred and the erotic seems a fool's enterprise. Immediately, my own intellect begins to mock me, presenting images of lascivious priests, porn shop editions of the Kama Sutra, or jokes about the ResERECTION or the Second Coming.

But, when I can release myself from the shackles of my rational self, I can admit some things. I don't know if god exists. But I do know that my understanding of the sacred, those moments when awe replaces fear, is linked to my understanding of the erotic-those moments when the distance between two bodies is breached by contact. The hum of flesh against flesh.

I recognize this aspect of myself, this desire, need, to find my connection to spiritual bliss in genital contact. After all, so many of the feelings used by mystics to describe their encounters with the divine have always sounded to my ear like descriptions of orgasm or its afterglow. When scholars make this argument, that religious ecstasy is sexual ecstasy sublimated, they are accused of reductionism. But what of persons such as me, who feel in ways that we are not always able to articulate, that sexual intimacy is as close as we'll ever come to feeling the fire of the divine?

And what of those moments when we go off seeking that connection and find something awful instead of the awe that we're after? How can sex mean and not mean simultaneously?

A few Christmases ago, I found myself alone. My ex was with my kids at his new girlfriend's house and I felt piercingly lonely and sad. A casual acquaintance invited me to go for a hike with him, and, rather than being alone and miserable, I opted for company. At the end of the afternoon, there was a tacit agreement that we would have sex, this virtual stranger and I. And thus followed a horrendous encounter. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was raped; after all, I had agreed to be there. But this man I barely knew did unspeakable things to my body over my objections and subjected me to a barrage of verbal humiliation. When I was able to extricate myself, I drove away from his house in rage at him and in an agony of anger at myself for allowing my loneliness to lead me down such a dark path.

There didn't feel as if there had been a moment of sacredness in any of what had happened. It was empty and malevolent and icky, and I wanted to cleanse myself of it-but I wasn't certain how.
In writing about this event so many months later there is the urge to remove all reference to it, to erase it from the past, treat it as if there is nothing sacred there. But there is, if only in the recognition that took place-not that day, but eventually-that sacred experiences are not always about bliss. Sometimes they are about the recognition that pain and suffering are the result when we attempt to unhitch the erotic from the better part of ourselves and denigrate it.

To speak about sex as if it is capable of elevating us is to risk being accused of not being spiritual enough, of living only on an earthly plain, of privileging the body over the soul. But why? There are few religions that celebrate the body as the gateway to the divine. Mostly, we are advised to subjugate the body to the spirit, to discipline it, to control it, to prevent it from carrying us into excess. And this has never made sense to me.

It has on an intellectual level. I understand the notion of dualities: sacred and profane, suffering and pleasure, good and evil, man and woman. As someone who has studied gender in historical context, I could riff for hours on the association of women with the body, men with spirit, and how both women and the body became the gateways through which evil, the Devil, sin found ways to enter the world.
So resorting to dualities explains away many of my questions. But it does nothing to solve the dilemma of my own questions-because I see sex as containing within it the potential for everything at all times.

The pain of existence is that we do it alone while constantly longing for contact with something other. We elevate the idea of spiritual communion with something outside of ourselves while we downplay the significance of the physical communion with another human being. And we denigrate it in ugly ways. I'm not saying that we should be worshipping the yoni or erecting statues of Priapus, but it seems to me that our insistence that sex is earth-bound is shortsighted. What other activity allows two human beings to grant to each other such release?

I think that sexuality is a gift. I don't know whether to call it divine because I don't know whence it came. But I know the places it has taken me. I have made realizations about when sex is sacred, and when I am using it to find a false sense of completion.

I cannot speak for other women, but I can speak from my position as a heterosexual woman. When I have read many accounts of male experiences of interaction with the divine, the most frequent image is that of a piercing or penetration by the divine spirit. The metaphor is important for several reasons. I would argue that one of the reasons that there has been such an insistence on separating sex from the sacred is the fear that describing sex and the penetration of the soul homoeroticizes the relationship between men and their gods. I have never seen an instance where a male mystic refers to being engulfed by the divine.

Because my experiences of sex involve the penetration of my body by a man, it has felt in ways that sex was an act of completion. Somehow, I saw in sexual intercourse and the complementary anatomies a desire to be completed by another human being. But it's become increasingly clear to me that I cannot be a whole person by the filling of Slot B with Tab A. Sacred sex cannot be about finding my other half.

This was not an easy illusion to give up. So much of our language of coupledom is about half coming together with half to form a whole. So many times I thought that sex could fix what is broken inside of me. But I cannot fix anyone else; nor can I be fixed. So many times I have mistaken my desirability as power, when I see now that frequently, I was in a weakened position. And so many times, I have walked away from those experiences diminished.

In the last few years, my whole self has emerged. The self that is capable of keeping itself company, of not feeling flattened by loneliness (although loneliness has not been completely banished). Instead, as I have written about before, I have learned to relish being alone, to find spiritual peace and emotional fulfillment in my presence. Still, questions about sex remain. And I let them remain unanswered, even as I acknowledge their insistence to be asked.

Cross-posted at CultureKitchen

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Diamond: Mukhtaran Bibi


Out of the farming village of Meerwala Jatoi in Pakistan's Punjab province comes the story of Mukhtaran Bibi.

Although it has been reported that she prefers the name Mukhtaran Bibi, she also is called Mukhtar Mai, which started in the local press, meaning "respected big sister." The news reports and blogs tell of her transformation from victim of a gang rape, ordered by a village council, to hero on the international stage.

Pakistan's farming villages are feudal and tribal. The self-styled village councils, the panchayat, rule. And in Mukhtaran Bibi's case, the tribal elements meant the richer tribe ruled over the poorer one, seeking to precede both Islamic law and the secular law of the land.

After the rape, Mukhtaran Bibi did a surprising thing. She filed a complaint with the police about the gang rape, a punishment for a perceived transgression of her younger brother. Her culture told her not to file a complaint; her culture expected that she would commit suicide for the shame visited upon her.

But she did not follow the rules of her culture.

The court, in its first decision, awarded her money - enough to start a school. In fact she started two schools, one for boys and one for girls. And she made sure the children of her attackers attended. Her case attracted attention from the national and international press, and the donations came flooding in. The latest reports put the total at more than $100,000.

She has expanded her plans to include a shelter for abused women and a van to be used as an ambulance. She was invited to the United States to speak.

But those humanitarian endeavors attracted even more attention. And then came the embarrassment of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who vented his anger upon her. (She-devils live in all cultures.) Authorities placed her under house arrest, silenced her and banned travel.

Through the latest charades, the men who had been convicted and sentenced to death in her case, then freed, are now ordered by Pakistan's high court back to jail.

Pakistan announced to the world the travel ban has been lifted, but as of Saturday (June 18, 2005) the government still holds her passport.

One woman, uncowed, unbowed - in a country where most rape victims have to produce four witnesses to secure a conviction.

From: http://www.mukhtarmai.com/Nextpage.htm

"In a region where illiteracy is the norm, Mukhtar had been educated and was herself a teacher of Islam. She understood her rights as arising not only from the esteem in which she was held by others, but also from her own understanding and abilities and from an innate value bestowed by God on all humans and codified in the Koran.

"When the local imam, or Islamic cleric, heard of what had happened to Mai, he used his position at the pulpit to speak out against the injustice that had been done and to call for Mai's condemners and attackers to be brought to trial before a civil court. The balance of political power that had once favored the attackers was slowly beginning to shift. The imam encouraged Mai to file an official complaint with the police."

And from Mukhtaran Bibi:


"I hope to make education more readily available to girls, to teach them that no woman should ever go through what happened to me," she said. "And I eventually hope to open more school branches in this area of Pakistan. I need your support to kill illiteracy and to help make tomorrow's women stronger. This is my goal in life."

Mukhtaran Bibi is a woman of faith. As Pakistan Today noted, her faith is not of the Wahabbi teachings, which are being blamed as a source of a dark, very dark, culture.

Her beliefs, her family, her friends, her community stood with her and for her. The more I read about this case, the more I esteem this woman.

Her story underscores lessons on many levels, only one being what we in America can truly learn about - and from - Islam.

And another: One woman.

E-mails can be sent to:
His Excellency Mr. Jehangir Karamat ambassador@embassyofpakistan.org

Donations, according to Nicholas D. Kristoff in The New York Times, can be sent to:
Mercy Corps, with "Mukhtaran Bibi" in the memo line: 3015 S.W. First, Portland, Ore. 97201.


Friday, June 17, 2005

Jeff Explains Sex

This is a fabulous post by MaJeff over at Booman and cross-posted at Culture Kitchen.

Sex is frightening to some, and their fear is driving the crazy car at the moment. I've spoken my piece on this before; Jeff's just got it going on today, and I'm deferring to him.

What We Did to Emma

In 1917, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were arrested for having organized anti-conscription activities. The U.S. government had just made the decision to entere World War I, and for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which being that it would be the poor and the working class who would be asked to go serve in an arisocratic fight that had turned into a disaster, Goldman, Berkman, and a whole host of progressive activists opposed entry into the war.

The details of how Emma came to be arrested can be found in her autobiography, Living My Life. The brief details is that there were a series of public meetings at which Emma spoke. There were also articles published in The Blast and Mother Earth Berkman and Goldman's publications respectively, which they were accused of having given to a man of "conscriptable age," thus they were seen as having handed someone advice on how to escape the draft.

The two were placed on trial. Goldman's speech to the jury is a masterpiece. The entire speech is well worth reading in its entirety. I would publish it here, except that I do not want to violate "fair use" laws.


In reading Goldman's words, I am stunned by the prescience of her words to our current situation. So little has changed in these 88 years. Rather than parse one of our greatest orators, I will simply quote her and admire her in silence.

Oh, and by the way, despite this speech, Goldman and Berkman were convicted and sentenced to two years in jail, essentially for exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Goldman was stripped of her American citizenship, and she, along with over 200 others, was exiled from the U.S. in 1919. That's right. She was kicked out of her own country.

Emma is buried in Chicago, close to the graves of the Haymarket martyrs. In death, she was able to return to this nation.


Speech: Address to the Jury
by Emma Goldman
[Delivered during her Anti-Conscription trial, New York City, July 9, 1917]


portions:

In their zeal to save the country from the trouble-makers, the Marshal and his helpers did not even consider it necessary to produce a search warrant. After all, what matters a mere scrap of paper when one is called upon to raid the offices of Anarchists! Of what consequence is the sanctity of property, the right of privacy, to officials in their dealings with Anarchists! In our day of military training for battle, an Anarchist office is an appropriate camping ground. Would the gentlemen who came with Marshal McCarthy have dared to go into the offices of Morgan, or Rockefeller, or of any of those men without a search warrant? They never showed us the search warrant, although we asked them for it. Nevertheless, they turned our office into a battlefield, so that when they were through with it, it looked like invaded Belgium, with the only difference that the invaders were not Prussian barbarians but good American patriots bent on making New York safe for democracy...


... Gentlemen of the jury, my comrade and co-defendant having carefully and thoroughly gone into the evidence presented by the prosecution, and having demonstrated its entire failure to prove the charge of conspiracy or any overt acts to carry out that conspiracy, I shall not impose upon your patience by going over the same ground, except to emphasize a few points. To charge people with having conspired to do something which they have been engaged in doing most of their lives, namely their campaign against war, militarism and conscription as contrary to the best interests of humanity, is an insult to human intelligence....



...Gentlemen, during our examination of talesmen, when we asked whether you would be prejudiced against us if it were proven that we propagated ideas and opinions contrary to those held by the majority, you were instructed by the Court to say, "If they are within the law." But what the Court did not tell you is, that no new faith--not even the most humane and peaceable--has ever been considered "within the law" by those who were in power. The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.

Gentlemen of the jury, most of you, I take it, are believers in the teachings of Jesus. Bear in mind that he was put to death by those who considered his views as being against the law. I also take it that you are proud of your Americanism. Remember that those who fought and bled for your liberties were in their time considered as being against the law, as dangerous disturbers and trouble-makers. They not only preached violence, but they carried out their ideas by throwing tea into the Boston harbor. They said that "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God." They wrote a dangerous document called the Declaration of Independence. A document which continues to be dangerous to this day, and for the circulation of which a young man was sentenced to ninety days prison in a New York Court, only the other day. They were the Anarchists of their time--they were never within the law....



..Gentlemen of the jury, we respect your patriotism. We would not, if we could, have you change its meaning for yourself. But may there not be different kinds of patriotism as there are different kinds of liberty? I for one cannot believe that love of one's country must needs consist in blindness to its social faults, to deafness to its social discords, of inarticulation to its social wrongs. Neither can I believe that the mere accident of birth in a certain country or the mere scrap of a citizen's paper constitutes the love of country.

I know many people--I am one of them--who were not born here, nor have they applied for citizenship, and who yet love America with deeper passion and greater intensity than many natives whose patriotism manifests itself by pulling, kicking, and insulting those who do not rise when the national anthem is played. Our patriotism is that of the man who loves a woman with open eyes. He is enchanted by her beauty, yet he sees her faults. So we, too, who know America, love her beauty, her richness, her great possibilities; we love her mountains, her canyons, her forests, her Niagara, and her deserts--above all do we love the people that have produced her wealth, her artists who have created beauty, her great apostles who dream and work for liberty--but with the same passionate emotion we hate her superficiality, her cant, her corruption, her mad, unscrupulous worship at the altar of the Golden Calf.

We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged. Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world? We further say that a democracy conceived in the military servitude of the masses, in their economic enslavement, and nurtured in their tears and blood, is not democracy at all. It is despotism--the cumulative result of a chain of abuses which, according to that dangerous document, the Declaration of Independence, the people have the right to overthrow.




...Whatever your verdict, gentlemen, it cannot possibly affect the rising tide of discontent in this country against war which, despite all boasts, is a war for conquest and military power. Neither can it affect the ever increasing opposition to conscription which is a military and industrial yoke placed upon the necks of the American people. Least of all will your verdict affect those to whom human life is sacred, and who will not become a party to the world slaughter. Your verdict can only add to the opinion of the world as to whether or not justice and liberty are a living force in this country or a mere shadow of the past. Your verdict may, of course, affect us temporarily, in a physical sense--it can have no effect whatever upon our spirit. For even if we were convicted and found guilty and the penalty were that we be placed against a wall and shot dead, I should nevertheless cry out with the great Luther: "Here I am and here I stand and I cannot do otherwise." And gentlemen, in conclusion let me tell you that my co-defendant, Mr. Berkman, was right when he said the eyes of America are upon you. They are upon you not because of sympathy for us or agreement with Anarchism. They are upon you because it must be decided sooner or later whether we are justified in telling people that we will give them democracy in Europe, when we have no democracy here? Shall free speech and free assemblage, shall criticism and opinion--which even the espionage bill did not include--be destroyed? Shall it be a shadow of the past, the great historic American past? Shall it be trampled underfoot by any detective, or policeman, anyone who decides upon it? Or shall free speech and free press and free assemblage continue to be the heritage of the American people?

Monday, June 13, 2005

A Recommended Writer

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c. Jymi Bolden

I have been thinking about Karen Novak a lot. Not because the two of us are friends, and, as friends are wont to do, we think often of those we love, but because once again, as one of Karen's novels is about to be released, I find myself wondering how she does it--how does Karen somehow tap into some underground spring of knowledge that comes to the surface in the news only after Karen's work is complete and in press. As if she is prescient, or one of those animals that picks up on the shifting of the earth long before the rest of us find ourselves caught in the earthquake. In this case, it's the photographs. I assume you know the ones I'm talking about: the ones where ordinary men and women stare at us, grinning, ecstatic, proud, direct from hell's trophy room, and give us the thumb's up as they pose with what they've bagged, humiliated, destroyed. And they sent these pictures back to their friends and relatives like postcards--"having a great time. wish you were here." There was another time in our country's history when such postcards were mailed, when human beings posed with their victims, unrecognizable in their butchered humanity, and again, as before, the torturers felt no shame, only glee at what they had done. It is that time, that time before, that The Wilderness explores.

Looking at the photos now from Abu Ghraib one is struck by how blind
the torturers are to what they've really done. And it is that type of
willful not seeing that is a theme that runs through Karen's books.
Because the first thing that Karen questions is whether it is voluntary
blindness or a trick of the eye that keeps us as human beings stuck in darkness.

Karen's characters illuminate their own blind spots for us the readers while they remain unable to bring them into autofocus. As with all of us who choose to remain conscious in a world where we might better long for the sweet release of oblivion, Karen's characters circle around their own blind spots as a person might do who is trying to see her own spine by looking over her shoulder. You know it's there and visible to others, but you have to accept that it's part of who you are and forever out of sight.

Whether it's detailing the slow erosion of a marriage until that one day when both partners awake at the bottom of the ravine, or following the frantic road of a mother's desire to love her child, or telling the tender story of a daughter's desire to protect her father to the point of doing him grave harm, Karen's willingness to allow her characters to be flawed without needing to fix them is the revelation of one of the facets of Karen's gift. If her characters receive epiphanies, they are not the epiphanies that bring about happy endings, they are, instead, those moments that Rilke, in letter #8, said, "are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing." Karen allows these moments to retain their silence, and does not grant to her characters the easy epiphanies of instant gratification. Knowledge, like life, is slow and comes only on its own terms.

And yet, as flawed as Karen's characters are, they are radiant. The Japanese have a philosophy called wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that insists that things are not beautiful in spite of their flaws, but rather, because of them. There is great beauty in the chipped jug, the asymmetric bowl. Karen's world is inhabited by wabi-sabi, and she is its mistress, leading us by the hand, making us look at those imperfections, to really see them, and in seeing them, noticing just what fucking glorious creatures we really are.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

What's that you say?

Call a woman a "menstruating she-devil" and look what happens. A blog, a voice for she-devils. And throw power at a poet, she'll take up her keyboard.

So, for your enjoyment:

Summoning Portia

(prick - a pointed instrument or weapon)

The quality of prickdom
falleth like a hailstorm
from the place above,
where the god of
righteousness
controlleth all
not liketh himself.
He pity-eth himself,
and seeking power
from without,
determineth needs
for all who listen.
Thus armed with
prick and force,
he visor-eth
his eyes and
cannot see, he
covereth his ears
and cannot hear

the human claims
of others.

And all those in
blended prickdom
faileth, not knowing
what bonds exist
unseen between
those pricked,
and bleeding,
and their insight-ed
defenders, who
make not claims
but tap a power
universal in
glowing lava and
aged stars,
and joining
moon shed
quiet, soft
light --
the lightening
of the Earth.

Mothering ideology, individualism, and mothers in prison

"I want to hug my kids, tell them good morning or tell them good night, that I love them. My pain is my boys, that's my pain, not being with my boys." - Gail, mother of two


"I'm gonna miss being a mom, I wanted to be a mom, I wanted to be there. I want to see my first grandchild, and I want to watch my daughters grow up, go to school..." - Mary, mother of four


The high standard to which mothers are held exists outside the material reality of our lives

Because mothers are widely believed to play a critical role in the organization of social life, everyone has a stake in how motherhood is defined and evaluated. The American ideology of motherhood is a set of interlocking ideas about what it means to be a mother and to perform mothering. Among these are notions of ideal mothering attitudes and practices, including limitless empathy, complete immersion in the care of children and needy others, and subordination of the mother's own needs and desires to those of others. When we become mothers, we are held (often solely) responsible for the development of our children into healthy, competent, moral citizens and productive workers. When our children do not themselves become ideal members of society, it is assumed that we mothers have failed to live up to our natural responsibilities. Mothers are blamed for everything, from criminal behavior, to mental illness, to father-daughter abuse and incest.

The ideology of motherhood is hegemonic. In other words, those who receive it take it for granted; they understand it as the way things are or should be. The ideal mother is something that women are supposed to naturally become, yet her mothering practices are defined outside the social and material conditions of women's lives. The kind of mother we think we are supposed to be is entirely irrelevant and indifferent to the real world we inhabit. The ideal mother is an arbitrary and oppressive social construction, and its violence is most evident on the bodies and lives of women of color and poor women, and their children.

Individualism creates material conditions that are hostile to good mothering, let alone ideal mothering

Motherhood is but one ideological form among others that work together to shape the context of American women's mothering. The cult of American individualism paradoxically results in social and material conditions that prevent mothering, while at the same time reinforcing the ideology of motherhood. For example, individualism has given rise to the "war on crime" in the past two decades, which has redirected the public discourse away from the correlation between crime rates and social problems like poverty (and the institutions and social policies that cause poverty), and has placed the phenomenon of crime squarely and solely on the shoulders of individuals, leading to a meteoric rise in incarceration rates. This is especially true for women, whose numbers in prison have increased 6.3 times since 1980 (Bureau of Justice, 2002).

Poor women and women of color, and their children are most vulnerable

Poor people are much more likely to go to prison than anyone else, and women are more likely to be poor than men. U.S. public policies, contorted by the interdependent ideologies of individualism and motherhood, perpetuate women's poverty by expecting them to bear most of the costs of child care and social reproduction, and to do so with diminished access to higher education; jobs that pay a living wage; quality daycare; health care; and safe, affordable housing, thanks most recently to so-called welfare reform. Under strict surveillance to successfully meet these hopelessly contradictory ideological expectations, poor women are sanctioned for their failure to become both self-made men and selfless mothers, thus continuing their impoverishment and increasing their risk of incarceration.

Criminal justice brings torturous ideological contradictions into clarity

Women's status as mothers upon whom others are dependent is held irrelevant at almost all stages of the criminal justice process, from arrest to judgment and sentencing to incarceration. This is especially true for women of color, who are more likely to be arrested and indicted than white women, to receive longer sentences than whites, and to serve longer before being paroled. Incarcerated women are physically removed from their children while at the same time, little policy or programming is offered to enable them to care for their vulnerable children left behind. When children of incarcerated women exhibit troublesome behaviors, the most likely causes of their problems -- the collective traumas of a history of poverty, parental substance abuse and mental illness, and family violence and instability; disrupted caregiving; exposure to danger as a result of not having a parent there to protect them; and separation from their primary caregivers -- are not considered. Rather, it is deemed the sole failure of incarcerated women themselves to be good mothers. There is an assumption among practitioners, academics, public policy-makers and in the larger society that incarcerated mothers are simply incompetent to provide adequately for their children. However, in several studies incarcerated women have been found to exhibit appropriate maternal attitudes and behaviors, similar to their non-criminal counterparts.

I did my dissertation research in a women's penitentiary in Texas. Because women comprise a relatively small portion of the total prison population, there are only a few women's prisons in the state. Given that Texas is so large, and that prisons ordinarily are located away from major population centers, it was not uncommon for prisoners to reside four or more hours' drive from their families. For families in poverty--and this was the case for almost every inmate I ever met--these women may have lived on the moon. Many women inmates had never received a visit from their children while in prison; some saw their children once a year. In Texas, prison inmates typically are not allowed to use the telephone so women's only opportunity to communicate with their kids was through the mail. Most inmates are school dropouts, and the average educational achievement level is about 8 - meaning that on average, inmates test as if they have an 8th grade education. Twenty-eight percent are reading below 6th grade level. Their ability to build a meaningful connection with their children by exchanging letters is limited not only by their children's literacy levels, but also their own.

These ideological contradictions are as good as violent attacks on women

In the U.S., we expect mothers to have limitless capacity to care for their children while withholding the material means for them to provide even minimal care. This has grave effects for mothers and children in poverty, especially those who commit crimes and become acquainted with criminal justice. Incarceration brings the problem into stark relief, by simultaneously placing the full responsibility for childrens' upbringing on their mothers, while preventing those mothers from interacting with their children on any kind of regular basis.

The correspondences and contradictions of the ideologies of individualism and motherhood conspire to bring about the separation of mothers in poverty from their children (and the traumas associated with it) while providing rationale for this separation. Only in the realm of ideas do perpetual motion machines exist, to carry out the work of preserving social immobility. This immobility is torture, plain and simple, not only for the women who are separated from their children by time and space, but also for the 1.5 million children in the U.S. who have a parent in prison.

"I didn't get no time with her at all. It was, it was like a void. It was like a gap there, an emptiness." - Grace, who gave birth to her daughter in prison

Some further reading.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Looking For Writers

There have been so many great ideas. I'd like to make this a community blog. E-mail me if you'd like to have posting privileges. lorraine_berry at yahoo

Sadness and Knowledge

Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet has become my meditational text. In the past four years, which has been a time of tremendous transition and sadness, expansion and death and rebirth, these 10 letters, written to a young man who asked Rilke how to become a poet, have fed me.


I thought of them again this morning, as I was reflecting on the past few days. I also, once again, thought of Sisyphus. (The material on Sisyphus is recycled from an earlier diary; the Rilke material is new.)


One of the immense comforts that Rilke provides is that he accepts that sadness and loss are great gifts in life. It's not about the nobility of suffering; for Rilke, sadness is a time when the "new" enters, when seeds get planted without our being aware, and only later do we reap the new crop.


He talks about the dislocation, the numbing, the sheer vertigo of grief, and, as my anger over this past weekend has waned, I find new emotions have come up. Sadness. But also a sense that from this sadness, something magnificent is going to happen.


For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.


It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished  emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes:  the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, - is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can't say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate; and later on, when it "happens" (that is, steps forth out of us to other people), we will feel related and close to it in our innermost being. And that is necessary. It is necessary - and toward this point our development will move, little by little - that nothing alien happen to us, but only what has long been our own. People have already had to rethink so many concepts of motion; and they ill also gradually come to realize that what we call fate does not come into us from the outside, but emerges from us.


And so, on the personal level, I take comfort from the words of Rilke. But as we all know, the larger problems of the world still confront us. Some of us feel as if we are stuck in an 8-year nightmare, that January 2009 can't come quickly enough, and we hope that perhaps, January 2007 will bring enough change that at least we'll be able to breathe again.


I know that many of us woke up on that cold day in November and felt as if we'd been run over by a truck, nay a boulder. Not unlike Sisyphus.

I've been thinking about Sisyphus these past few weeks, as I've watched what appears to be a march toward oblivion taking place in my country. I admit, since the coronation in January, or perhaps well before it, I've felt this increasing dread that we're on the road to nowhere, that we are confronted with a juggernaut that seeks to destroy all of us people of good conscience who oppose the immoral, unethical, unholy alliance forged on the Right.


They believe that what they are doing is justified by a God of their understanding, and we, many of us who consider ourselves religiously unmusical, struggle to re-frame the debates so that we might claim moral high ground without having to bring God onto our team.


For those of you out there who are guided by a belief in God, I say hallelujah. But what of those, like me, who do not believe in God, but yet who believe that treating human beings in a compassionate manner is the core essence of my politics, how do we find comfort in these days when we are branded with so many ugly names, the likes of which I refuse to say outloud?


In 1940, a young writer named Albert Camus looked at the devastation around him, the carnage that was taking place and building in Europe, and asked an essential question. If life has no meaning, why not commit suicide? The essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus," were first read by me as a teenager. 25 years later, I take out the essays again, and I find much to comfort me as I contemplate the seemingly Herculean task before us as progressives.


The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.


For those of you who don't know the story of Sisyphus, he got himself into trouble with the gods for a number of reasons: he was a trickster, a questioner, and ultimately, thought he could defeat death. For his sins, he was punished with the eternal task of pushing the rock.


Many of us thought that the advances made by progressives-environmental protections, civil rights protections, abortion rights, a social safety net for the struggling, gender equity-we thought those rights, that were fought for and died for-we thought they would not be taken away from us. And yet, since January 2001, we have watched those rights be attacked by people who claim that our hubris--our beliefs that humanity was the paramount consideration in politics-has led us into sin, and to appease the Almighty, we must be made to suffer.


Consider Sisyphus:

His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.


They want to tell us that we have accomplished nothing. They want us to watch our rock rolling back down the hill, to laugh at our despair as we contemplate the ruins of the things we have achieved; they want to mock us.


Some of us feel overwhelmed by the pain of this all. Some of us want to give up. But I cannot give up. I have children-girls-and I cannot give up because I cannot bear the idea that my daughters will grow up in a culture that tells them that their fate was determined by Eve's sin, that they are less. I just won't.


But I'm not going to be miserable in this fight. Yes. It's hard. Yes. I have days when it feels absolutely fucking hopeless. But I turn back to Camus, Camus who in 1940, could still write these words.


If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.


The myth of Sisyphus reminds us that our compassionate politics, our empathy, drives us.

It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.


There will be days when our tears at what we have lost will overwhelm us. But, we are already at the bottom of the hill. We have begun to push back. The rock is beginning to move. Progress is slow. It will not happen overnight. But it will happen. And you know what? I, for one, am going to be laughing as I push. Will you join me?


All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of  victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasingI leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth wihtout a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.


Cross-posted at Booman Tribune

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

What Now?

In a soccer game a couple of years ago, my eldest daughter was playing. The ref that day had a habit of blowing his whistle for every tiny infraction (some of which were imagined). My daughter had the ball at her feet, and when she heard the whistle, whipped around and with great indignation yelled, "What now? She was tossed out of the game.

So, I'm asking those of you who are coming by, what now? What to do with this blog? I see it as collective. I don't necessarily see it as political, although I see the political tied to the personal, but I'm wondering if it might be a place to tell stories--funny, poignant, etc., about what it feels like to be a woman in a sexist culture.

I'm totally open to suggestions.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Just Because I Can

My policy has always been that the best way to make fun of someone is to turn their insult back on them. So, from now on, I'm a proud menstruating she-devil (or at least until I hit menopause anyway. )