Make Feminism Hairy Again

When I decided to grow out my body hair, I found few role models.

Google led me to a handful of celebrity rebels who had at one time or another eschewed the razor and flaunted small tufts of light-colored armpit hair. (Here’s looking at you, Jemima Kirke and Miley Cyrus.) But there were so few of these examples that I kept coming across the same picture of Julia Roberts on red carpet with armpit hair in 1999. As academic Breanne Fahs observed in 2011, “the removal of [female] body hair is sufficiently pervasive that it retains its invisibility.” (See article)

In my nearly 27 years on earth, in fact, I can remember less than a handful of instances in which I have seen body hair on another woman. Once on a family trip when I was around 12 years old, my aunt Pam told my cousin Clara and me to avoid shaving our leg hair for “as long as possible;” showing us her own sparse, grown-out leg hair. A few years ago in Chicago, I saw a young woman with bleached armpit hair on the Halsted bus. Around the same time, I met a few adult women with leg and armpit hair at Jerusalem Farm, the Catholic Worker-esque Christian hippie community my then-boyfriend, now-husband Thom was part of in Kansas City, Missouri. But these instances are memorable because of their rarity.

Every other woman I’ve observed in these decades — young, middle-aged, or elderly — has displayed nothing but perfectly smooth, hairless calves, thighs, bikini lines, and armpits. Teachers, check-out ladies, professors, moms, older sisters, actresses… everyone. Even the grandmother figures in my life — people for whom a fall would be a medical emergency — are somehow still bending over to shave their legs in the shower.

***

Weirdly, many of the articles I came across when I decided to grow out my body hair made it sound like I would be in good company. They told me the revolution was already well underway. In the Guardian in 2019, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow wrote, “Among both celebrities and the masses, female body hair is sprouting all over.” She cited a handful of celebrities who have publicly displayed body hair at least once and an Instagram awareness campaign titled “#januhairy.”

But if this were true, if body hair were indeed “sprouting all over,” I would have at least one friend growing their body hair out, right? I would have seen leg or armpit hair on a woman at the grocery store or out walking her dog? Certainly women’s magazines wouldn’t have to pull out a 1999 photo of Julia Roberts every time they needed empirical evidence of female body hair?

* * *

The more I look for body hair trail blazers, the more I realize how rare it is. Even feminists shave. Most feminists shave.

In a recent episode of the podcast Hysteria titled “Beauty In The After Times,” the host panel discussed their stay-at-home personal grooming routines during COVID-19. Recurring guest Michaela Watkins said, “There’s some hair on the legs… [but] you gotta shave the pits, that’s not up for negotiation. Erin Ryan responded, “I always find it admirable when women don’t. Because it’s like, I wish that I was that type of woman and I’m just not that type of woman.”

Thus the female shaving norm is not even under investigation by mainstream feminists, at least not here. Not shaving is for a certain “type of woman.”

This phrasing reminds me of the ideology of the relatively new women’s subscription razor service, Billie.

See orange tank top model. What is that?

Billie occupies a contradictory space. The brand claims to be taking revolutionary action by depicting “real” women in their ad campaigns – i.e. women with grown-out body hair. But the fact remains that Billie is a subscription razor service. All of that hair they photograph is about to be mown-down by their high-tech, female-form-specific razors. Billie notes that women shave ten times more surface area of their bodies than men do. Rather than ask why, they made a razor sturdy enough to get the job done.

Their website claims a feminist mission: “We noticed that women were overpaying for razors and shamed for having body hair. Kind of a double whammy, when you think about it. So, we did away with the Pink Tax and put body hair on the big screen.” They also attempt to account for the contradiction: “Why, yes we do [sell razors] . . because women who like shaving ha[ve] been overpaying for razors for far too long.”

But notice the wording: women who like shaving.

Perhaps Billie occupies a necessary middle distance. It’s possible that after seeing Billie’s hair-embracing ads for the last two years, I became subconsciously more accepting of my own body hair. Billie points out that until their ad campaign, women’s razor advertisements had universally shown women shaving already-hairless legs. Though that’s sort of hilarious, it is also what most of us do, is it not? Shave off nearly-invisible stubble? First of all, that makes a razor last longer. But second, and more importantly, the appearance of hairlessness is the primary goal. Though they may exist, I do not know women who oscillate between fully grown-out and clean-shaven pits and legs – as a man might with his facial hair (e.g. my husband).

This framing of the shaving issue — that some women “like” to shave while others do not; that some women are the “type” to grow their body hair while others are not, is dishonest. Even cowardly.

This free choice framing of the shaving question is everywhere. In an article titled “Why I Can Shave My Body Hair And Still Be A Feminist,” for Cub Magazine in 2019, Melissa Tran wrote:

“For me, shaving my legs, my armpits, or wherever I choose, is important for me to feel good about myself. . . Feminism is entirely about equality so that we can all make our own choices. If you want to be hairless from top to toe, do it! If you want to grow your body hair all over, do it! It’s none of my business what you choose to do, its your choice, and as long as it’s for yourself, that’s all that really matters.”

But it’s simply not true that shaving is a simple matter of choice. Shaving is the majority position. Speaking to Marie Claire Magazine in 2018, Fahs (of the 2011 study) said that 93-99% of women regularly remove their body hair.  Another statistic I’ve seen from 2016 (from Mintel, a UK market research company) said that 77% of women remove their underarm hair and 85% shave their legs. As Rosy Tahan wrote in The Gazelle in 2016, “Choosing to shave is not nearly as difficult as choosing not to, and as women we need to make it easier — and normal — for other women to make the latter choice.”

In my experience of the last six months, I am the only woman in any space with visible body hair – whether at a backyard barbeque with friends, out on a walk, at the pool in my apartment complex, at the grocery store, or a family gathering. And I don’t like it. I’m not a natural rebel. I would much rather have things in common with people, especially with other women.

I sometimes look to Instagram for the small community of hairy women (#leghairdontcare), just to assure myself that I’m not crazy for doing this. Because in my physical, day-to-day life, I am very much alone.

Moreover, as a cisgender, heterosexual, thin, white woman, eschewing hair removal is an elective breaking of rank. I am used to fitting in, even good at it. As my husband Thom says, the system was working for me. I am uncomfortable feeling physically different from my peers because I’m unpracticed.

So why do it?

***

Three summers ago, I grew out my leg and armpit hair for the first time ever. At 23, I had no idea what my armpit or leg hair even looked like. I’d been shaving off millimeters of stubble for a decade by then. I started in 7th grade, when my armpit hair was just barely beginning to sprout and my leg hair was just beginning to thicken and darken.

As might seem natural, the return of hair in places on my body I’d spent 10 years keeping hairless created all kinds of emotions: disgust, shame, self-consciousness, and body dysmorphia.

That first time I grew my hair out, I went through many episodes of crying about feeling ugly to Thom. Eventually, I shaved my leg and armpit hair again. I couldn’t deal. “Go off duty,” Thom said. But surprisingly, shaving again did not really make me feel better. The seal had been broken. I was now aware of how much work it took to adhere to the hairlessness norm. I knew of a non-prickly existence. I thought my legs looked weird bare, too. Any illusion that all had been fine; that I had been loving and accepting my body the way it was had been shattered. I couldn’t win either way.

I let my hair grow out again the next winter but shaved it again the following summer. Then, this summer of 2020, with COVID-19 keeping me mostly within the walls of my apartment, I decided I wanted to really stick it out and make peace with my naturally-occurring body hair. And I’ve realized a few things in the process.

First of all, the number one critic of my body hair is me. Almost no one has commented on it, with the exception of my best friend from childhood. I, on the other hand, have been hyperaware of its presence, particularly in social situations. In summer clothing, my leg hair is visible every time I wear shorts, a dress, or shorts; my armpit hair is visible every time I wear a tank top or something with tiny little sleeves. And because cropped pants are very “in” right now (cropped joggers, 7/8 leggings, cropped jeans, cropped everything) the hairiest part of my leg (my lower calf and ankle) shows even when I wear pants!

And yet, I have also made wonderful discoveries along the way. Leg hair feels so cool in the wind. I never knew! When I run outside, I can actually feel the air moving over my legs. My legs don’t get itchy anymore, not even in tight pants like leggings or skinny jeans. I can take a shower in 10 minutes. My armpits don’t bleed or sting when I sit out in the humid, midwestern summer air.

Thom has fielded an endless barrage of self-doubt from me, but he never stoops to my level. “What if I had armpit hair when we met?” I asked, “would you still have been attracted to me?” “I probably would have been more attracted to you,” he said.

One of Professor Rebecca M. Herzig’s most compelling observations in Plucked: A History of Hair Removal is as follows:

“Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing finding in the social-scientific literature on body hair is that while U.S. women readily recognize the normative pressures on them to remove their hair, and report those pressures as determining the behavior of other women, most do not accept adherence to social norms as determinative of their own practices. . . Put simply, Americans tend to describe other people as dupes of social pressure, while narrating their (our) own actions as self-directed and free.

Social pressure is not a good reason to do anything, and yet I realized that it was the only reason I had been shaving. The reason I used to “like” to shave was because it made me feel confident. Why? Because hairlessness is the default norm for attractiveness. And as a woman, I had internalized the message that attractiveness equals access to power, which equals safety and happiness. So sure. I “liked” shaving in the same way that I like having friends, opportunities, and being accepted. In not shaving, I’m protesting the idea that I needed to be artificially hairless to have access to these things in the first place.

Five Recent Reads

At the moment, I’m trying to start writing ~for real~ which means working on longer pieces and submitting them to publications. Thom and I have decided to stay in Indianapolis long term, which means I have the environmental stability to really test my writing (i.e. rejection) stamina. It’s daunting, but I’m psyched. (See Thom’s blog for more details.)

I have already sabotaged my writing hours by adopting up a kitten from the Indianapolis Humane Society. I did this approximately one day after I committed to a new, more focused writing plan. Chickpea is a needly little thing, with major keyboard-envy. But she’s also cute and cuddly and livens up our home-office with her kitten antics.

Meet Chickpea, my saboteur.

So as I lift Chickpea off my desk for the 20th time this hour and return her to the floor, I thought I’d keep this writing exercise short and sweet. Below are five books I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months. What’s more, these are all written by women or people of color:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is a great, lengthy, relational novel. Evaristo brings together every kind of non-straight-white-male character imaginable. The book is set in the UK, which I found very fun. The London setting centers on the National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, which allowed me to reminisce about studying abroad in that very spot five years ago as a junior in college. It’s also interesting to read about the history of the Black community in the UK, insofar as it is similar to and different from the experience of Black citizens of the United States. Particularly after the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, this novel offered me a way to contemplate race that was new and slightly removed from the current content of Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/etc.

My only criticism of Evaristo’s novel is that I found the flow a bit choppy. My reading was slowed, especially in the first half, by the continual introduction of new characters and new perspectives, and the complete dropping of the previous characters. (Until in the end, that is, when all of the times, places, and people prove to be intertwined, as in one of those ensemble rom-coms from the 2000s.) One might compare the reading experience to driving down a residential road with a stop sign every-other block. Come to a full stop, then rev the engine to get going again. But ultimately, Girl, Woman, Other was worth the reengagement effort. The characters and relationships Evaristo packs into this 400+ pager, with their widely variable racial, socioeconomic, gender, and sexual dynamics are a fascinating study in humanity’s complexity and the spectrums of identity. And frankly, these are the kinds of stories I have not read anywhere else.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is a recent release — one I had been anticipating ever since I finished Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers. The novel has a fascinating premise: it’s the 1960s in a fictional light-skinned Black town called Mallard in Louisiana, and a pair of twin girls comes of age. Progressive skin-lightening was a goal of the town’s founders, who established Mallard after they were freed post-Civil War. One twin grows up to live as a Black person, the other leaves her family behind to start a new life passing as white. This creates a rift between the sisters and their offspring, and shows how the ideal of whiteness permeates and causes destruction in all American communities — whether Black, white, or mixed-race. Bennett reveals race for what it is: America’s foundational caste system, and she exposes the system’s relational consequences across decades, cities, and within families.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is falls into the same category as Girl, Woman, Other insofar as it provides a slightly removed context in which to understand and examine racism. I’ve found that sometimes its easier for me to see evil clear-eyed when the U.S. is not directly involved. But unlike Evaristo’s novel, Born A Crime is a nonfiction story — Noah’s own. Noah is brilliant, funny, and informative as a narrator of his life and the history of apartheid in South Africa. As a “mixed” person (Black mother, white father) whose existence was technically illegal, Noah did not fit into any of the racial categories where he lived. Consequently, he has a fascinating perspective on how race, culture, and language function to either divide us or to bring us together.

I listened to Born A Crime on audiobook, which turned out to be a great choice. Noah is a wonderful narrator, and the voices he does for his family members, his younger self, and others make the book come to life. He’s both earnest and hilarious. It’s also helpful to hear him read aloud the many South African language phrases that appear throughout his story. (By the way, this is one of those annoying “Audible exclusives” — so you can’t get it from the library on Libby. Annoying, but worth it.)

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked up Such A Fun Age shortly after the Black Lives Matter movement resurged with new vigor, making a promise to myself to read more books by BIPOC (a new acronym for me: Black and Indigenous People of Color).

My favorite thing about Reid’s novel was the main character Emira. She’s about my age, in her mid-20s, and in a similar state of confusion regarding her career, her future, and her ambivalence about seeking the kind of worldly achievement everyone is supposed to want (and everyone else wants for her).

I felt affirmed by her suspicious, measured view of American values, and the genuine fulfillment she finds spending her days babysitting. I also enjoyed Reid’s engagement with the idea of boundaries: between employer and employee, between white woman and Black woman. Alix (the mom, white woman, employer) thinks of Emira as hers; she transgresses boundaries, assumes ownership over Emira’s time, personal life, and decisions, and tries to establish a friendship where there is a pervasive, obvious power imbalance. As someone who has held several assistant jobs in my life, I found Reid’s portrayal of the boss-employee dynamic to ring true, and I was glad to engage with the additional layer a racial power imbalance. Overall, Such A Fun Age is a great read. It’s not as heavy as The Vanishing Half, (the characters seem happier), but it’s just as powerful.

I was able to get Such A Fun Age from the library (I use the Libby app) and read it on my kindle. Often, with popular books or new releases, the Indianapolis Public Library will offer me a 7-day “skip the line” e-book loan shortly after I place a hold. This is my favorite pandemic discovery; an unexpected system that makes it possible for me to actually get new books from the library relatively quickly, and with proper social-distancing.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read City of Girls months ago and was surprised at how much I loved it. The novel features an all-women cast of characters whose lives revolve around the 1940s New York City theater scene. There are playwrights, songwriters, costume-designers, and showgirls. Gilbert creates a vivid, exciting picture of this alternative life — one without husbands, kids, catalogs, and midlife depression. Gilbert’s characters are fascinating, well-rounded, creative, and free. As most of the books about women in the late 1800s and early 1900s in end in the bored, miserable protagonist having an affair or committing suicide (looking at you, Kate Chopin and Anna Karenina), it was such a joy to read a novel set in that time that is so full of joy.

***

Chickpea has fallen asleep in the back of my chair, where my lower back leaves a kitten-sized gap. Today I started reading Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan, which has a plot suspiciously similar to Such a Fun Age (career woman is lonely and sad, resigned to a new suburban life away from New York City, staying home with with young kids, and tries to befriend babysitter). But I have high hopes, because I’ve loved every single book by Sullivan. Her last one, Saints of All Occasions, was her best novel yet, in my opinion. She writes about women navigating complex lives and relationships (familial relationships, mainly) which never gets old for me. And I’m particularly excited because I bought this book in hardback, after spending about three months exclusively consuming kindle library rentals. It feels good to hold a book again.

Okay, one more Chickpea picture.

Chickpea takes a ride in Thom’s water bottle sling.

Crap, I’m A Crier: Reflections on White Fragility

Like many white people closely following the current Black Lives Matter movement and thus moved to embark on some long-term inner work, I recently picked up Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. DiAngelo, a white anti-racist educator, calls white people to recognize the subtle, widespread ways all of us uphold white supremacy.

DiAngelo challenged me in a way I didn’t expect. I don’t have much experience with the specific kind of white fragility she discusses: that is, being confronted or called out for racist comments, assumptions, or behaviors. Most of the examples DiAngelo uses take place within anti-racism workshops, or other race-conscious spaces. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, which is 0.9% Black, and then went to Notre Dame, which is 4% Black. I can probably count on one hand the times I remember talking about non-historical—that is, present and active—racism. And even then, it wasn’t with Black Americans.

Still, I do have experience being called out for saying or doing hurtful things to other people. And as defined by DiAngelo, I respond with swift, powerful, conversation-ending white fragility:

“If we need to cry so that all the resources rush back to us and attention is diverted away from a discussion of our racism, then we will cry (a strategy most commonly employed by white middle-class women). If we need to take umbrage and respond with righteous outrage, then we will take umbrage. If we need to argue, minimize, explain, play devil’s advocate, pout, tune out, or withdraw to stop the challenge, then we will.”

I shamefully recognize myself here—but just as someone who employs these defensive behaviors any time she is challenged. About a year ago, my (white) husband told me that every time he tries to bring up an issue with me, I respond with such overwhelming hurt and fierce crying that the original issue always gets lost. The impetus is then on him to comfort me, when really, I was the one who needed to repair a past hurt in our relationship.

It has been hard to confront this fact about myself. I’m still defensive of my crying response. To me, it feels automatic, like a tripwire. I don’t consciously think to myself, “Okay, I know how I’m going to get out of this”… and then start bawling. 

It might be that I have simply not developed the muscle of dealing with regular criticism or negative feedback. Not because I don’t deserve it, but because people reflexively protect my feelings and give me the benefit of the doubt as a young white woman.

This is a key point for DiAngelo—that white people are so not used to dealing with racial discomfort that we respond with white fragility. To understand DiAngelo’s framework, I had to map it onto my mostly white, segregated, and racially unaware life. I have so rarely been held accountable for wrongdoing among white people that when it does happen, I react with shocking immaturity.

Occasionally, receiving a rare piece of negative feedback, I’ve found myself not crying, but full of self-righteous anger. This tends to happen with people I’m less close with—like teachers, coworkers, or other people’s parents. In one instance, when I was a sophomore in high school, I caused a class-wide dress code violation because I challenged the teacher who tried to discipline me individually. Instead of accepting my fate, I responded, “Mrs. G, no one in this entire school wears collared shirts under their sweatshirts. You could check everyone in this room.” She took me up on that, and about 5 minutes later, about 20 pissed-off classmates and I walked down to the principal’s office. I was ashamed to realize that because I had refused to admit I had broken a rule and accept a small, inconsequential punishment, I had become a 16-year-old tattletale.

DiAngelo’s White Fragility couples these two seemingly distinct responses—crying and fighting back—as complementary defense mechanisms. As quoted above, to cry is one option, another is to “argue, minimize, explain, [or] play devil’s advocate.”

DiAngelo writes, “If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility.”

I realized, reading DiAngelo’s book, that my white fragility is founded upon a false, counterproductive understanding of character. To borrow from Dr. Carol Dweck’s analysis in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” In contrast, a growth mindset is a belief that “your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

Underlying my white fragility is a fixed mindset. If confronted for doing a bad thing, I am in distress because I fear that beneath it all, I’m a bad person. If I am bad, no one will love me. Like someone put the Harry Potter sorting hat on my head and it said “Slytherin.” It’s not like they’ll let me into Gryffindor tomorrow if I start being a better person; I have to argue that I don’t belong there in the first place.

A key argument in White Fragility is that racism is unavoidable. We are all racist. We have been socialized in a white supremacy. It’s not our fault, so we don’t need to be defensive or feel guilty. But we invited to work against it, and learn as we go.

It makes sense that these patterns of behavior exist prior to being confronted about racism specifically. I can see that my habits with my family and friends, in white spaces, could end up tanking an anti-racism workshop and frustrating people of color. I just have not been in that space yet. And thankfully, people like my husband are helping me recognize these patterns ahead of time. 

DiAngelo emphasizes again and again that to receive criticism should be encouraging and humbling, rather than terrifying. It’s is an invitation to become better: stronger, more emotionally mature, less afraid, more generous. Every time I read a headline that includes “White Female Tears” now, I am humbled and reminded that the most profound change I can make begins within.

Unlearning History

I have been inspired by my uncle Kit’s recent posts on his personal encounters with racism in America (“White Flight,” “Stupid Smart Person,” and “Window Tint“) to do some reflecting of my own.

In 7th and 8th grade, I had a teacher named (for purposes of this essay) Mrs. G.

Mrs. G taught social studies, reading, and grammar to all of the 7th and 8th grade students at my small Catholic school in Boise. In some respects, she was one of my favorite teachers of all time. She was deeply engaged with my classmates and me. She challenged us, treated us like adults, and gave us more ownership over our own learning process than any teacher we’d had before. We had heated discussions about anything and everything. She made space for it. She gave us hard, work-intensive research and writing projects, and said “I know you guys can do it.” So we did.

At the end of high school, I honored Mrs. G as one of the three most impactful teachers of my K-12 education. I brought her to the Boise Century Rotary Scholars dinner and we both got medals. I still have the event photographer’s photo of us standing together right as we exited the stage, flashing startled smiles.

* * *

Years later, I started working as a part-time assistant to Mr. G’s husband, I “friended” Mrs. G on Facebook. I was shocked to see that basically all she posted was asshole-ish political content. I started to feel kind of icky about having honored her as an influential teacher. I learned that she was pro-Trump long before he became the Republican nominee. I watched her amplify Fox News’ calls for Hillary to be arrested and jailed during the 2016 election on my Facebook timeline. Day after day, she reposted memes that called Bernie Sanders supporters “ignorant freeloaders” and “young people who don’t know history.”

After that Facebook awakening, I began reflecting more critically on my junior high experiences in Mrs. G’s class. I started remembering the Mrs. G of social studies, who was very different from the Mrs. G of writing, reading, and grammar (or so I thought).

During a unit on the Civil War (a unit that we had in both 7th and 8th grade social studies), Mrs. G repeated to us the following line, again and again: “Remember, the Civil War was not about slavery. It was about _______” she’d look at us, hand up to her ear, and wait for us to answer in unison: “States’ rights!” She told us that the idea that the Civil War was fought over slavery was nothing more than a “common misconception.” My perception of this lesson at the time was that it was more correct and academic to look for causes and ideals that were more central than slavery. Slavery was not a founding principle of the United States, just something that happened on the side for a while.

(On that note, as part of my great unlearning, a phrase that comes from Rachel Cargle, I am deeply grateful for Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project.”)

Mrs. G also told us while teaching Civil War history, “If I were teaching this in Georgia right now, we’d be calling it the ‘War of Northern Aggression.'” (She had been a teacher in Georgia before she came to Idaho.) Given that juxtaposition, Mrs. G’s categorizing the Civil War an idealogical divide over “states’ rights” seemed like a fair middle ground. On a social studies test in Mrs. G’s class, if the question was “What issue was at the heart of the Civil War?” it was not open-ended. It was multiple choice, and you would be wrong to fall for “slavery” if it were listed as an option.

A quick Google search reveals that my class was not alone in learning this version of Civil War history. According to a Quartz article by reporter Jake Flanigan, “An informal survey conducted in 2011 by James W. Loewen, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 55% to 75% of American teachers—’regardless of region or race’—cite states’ rights as the chief reason for Southern secession.”

A Washington Post article corrects this narrative in article titled “Five Myths about Why the South Seceded:”

“Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

Thinking back to middle school social studies, over a decade ago, I now recognize things Mrs. G said in history class as direct quotes from conservative pundits. E.g. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I marvel at how much power she had to shape my classmates’ understanding of the world back when we were young and had two main sources of information: our homes and our school.

Mrs. G taught me history in 2007 and 2008, not long before Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States. During the primary elections, I remember kids in my class saying they were “moving to Canada” if Hillary Clinton were to be nominated and elected. In a red state like Idaho, I was one of only two kids in my class of 30 who was vocally in favor of Obama. But this was not to my credit. Like the rest of my classmates, I was parroting the beliefs of the only other adult with whom I regularly talked about politics, whom I loved and respected more than Mrs. G: my dad.

* * *

Mrs. G was a California native, Spanish speaker, and Latina woman. She was not the person whom one might expect an impassioned “state’s rights” defense from. After I started working for her husband years later, I realized she was probably the less extreme defender of the Confederacy within her house. Mr. G once said to me (after I told him I voted for Obama in 2012, my first vote as a newly enfranchised 18-year-old), “One thing I always like to ask Democrats is this: ‘How much money do you want?'” His intonation was, “Where does it end?” To Mr. G, the government was a system that was there to take from him without end, and he didn’t owe anyone anything.

I did not have a good answer to the “How much?” question. For me, politics has never been about money, it has been about justice. We should do right by people. People are more important than things. This is a lesson I have been re-learning after the killings of more innocent black citizens in recent weeks, such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. If we seek to do the right thing, the details will work themselves out. I see now that I should have responded to Mr. G not with an answer (“How about $5 more an hour, to start?”) — but with more questions. Why did he associate “Democrat” with “wants my money?” Why is keeping and maintaining control of “his” money the number one political consideration in his life?

This question followed from one of my only attempted confrontations with my coworkers about politics that summer. I spent many days listening to Mr. G and the other nurses talk about needing to get AR-15’s before it was too late, and saying things like ‘you don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ (criticizing President Obama’s rescue of Bo Berghdal, an Idahoan). I never knew how to engage them. I assumed it was a lost cause. I also interpreted these kinds of comments as mean and angry and I did not want that energy redirected at me.

I used to sit there, restocking medical supplies, thinking “damn, this is hard to listen to.” I’d tell my dad later. He’d refute them and that would make me feel better.

But now, following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement (that I am rejoicing to see spring up more unified and powerful than ever), I am realizing that there is a hierarchy of discomfort. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to listen to people be rude and selfish and quick to anger and violence. It’s counterintuitive to put oneself in the line of fire. But it is a privilege not to automatically be in the line of fire by virtue of a thing as unearned and random as being born white in America. It’s a hell of a lot more uncomfortable to walk around in the world as a black or brown person at whom this kind of vitriol is automatically directed (in our office, the Medicaid patients); to be a person who lives in the line of fire, everyday, year after year, generation after generation.

One of these former coworkers posted on Facebook last week “Here we go again with black lives matter. . . ” several people liked it and someone commented “Haha I love you.” I read this, got super mad about it, thought about messaging her, and then did not do it. Still thinking about it a few days later, I went back to her timeline and found that she had since deleted the post. I had missed my opportunity to speak up. The silver lining was realizing that somebody else probably did.

The resources I’ve been reading and listening to this week are helping me to realize that I do have privilege any time I’m in a white-only space (e.g. the entire state of Idaho), and that I have an obligation to use it. After squeaking out to my boss “I voted for Obama,” the next step should have been to research how to have difficult conversations and come up with an intelligent answer to the “How much money do you want?” question.

My husband, Thom, is practiced and strategic about mixing it up with people he disagrees with. In the past, he has approached AR-15 toting guns-rights marchers and given them hugs as a nonviolent form of protest. He once got in the middle of a fight on the street he lived on in Chicago and started hugging people amidst the flying limbs (he was then hit by a car). Thom credits his strategies to the tradition of nonviolence and social justice Christianity – a tradition that relies on people becoming free from the fear of pain and death. Thom finds this freedom in the example of Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Christian scholars such as Thomas Merton. I am not on his level yet (he says it’s the white guys’ job to become nonviolent first, anyway, not the women and people of color’s), but he inspires me to recognize the power I do have and to give it freely.

* * *

Middle school teachers have a tremendous impact on how we go on to understand the world. At least, they certainly did for me. If not for my dad who immediately told me when I brought home Mrs. G’s “states’ rights” idea, “No, the Civil War was absolutely, one-hundred-percent about slavery; your teacher is wrong,” I might have believed it. (Shoutout to all the amateur Civil War historian dads out there.) I might have taken Mrs. G’s version of history with me into high school, college, and beyond. I wonder what other perceptions of history she taught me that I don’t consciously remember, that have gone uncorrected.

I am waking up to all that I need to learn, and perhaps more importantly, unlearn.

Emptying Boxes

I gave myself a bye on blogging last week.

I needed a rest. I was also uninspired by the book I was reading.

After hearing her interviewed on Cheryl Strayed’s new podcast, Sugar Calling, I decided to check out Amy Tan’s recent memoir Where the Past Begins (2017). I’d never particularly enjoyed Tan’s short stories, which I’d read for creative writing classes in college, but I was struck by this quote of hers, pulled out as the podcast title: “You don’t take dictation [as a writer], you find the truth.” (Listen here.)

Even though Tan’s book contains everything I should love (refer to my previous post) — I just could not get into it. Every time I tried to read a few pages, I would soon find myself scrolling through texts or Instagram, with no memory of putting the book down.

I’m not sure it’s entirely the book’s fault. I enjoyed parts of it. Tan’s life story is compelling, and she is deeply insightful. Hers is a vignette-style memoir that was apparently crafted by sending random 20-25 page personal essays to her editor every week for a year. It’s less a narrative of a life than a collection loosely related essays on her past.

She is full of interesting ideas. She writes of herself:

“I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.”

Brilliant. Super-insightful.

And yet, perhaps because we’re in our the eighth week of quarantine here at Casa Troyer Behrens and I’ve had enough self-examination, or perhaps because I’m all-memoired-out for the moment, this neediness to know in Tan quickly started to drive me crazy.

After a week of snail-paced reading (during which I made it halfway-through the book) I decided to let it ascend back to its home in the Indianapolis Public Library cloud.

It might be that Tan’s mind is too similar to my own for me to enjoy visiting there. What annoys you in others is what you don’t like about yourself, as the saying goes. Where the Past Begins opens with Tan sitting at a desk in her office, sorting through every paper artifact from her life, her parents’ lives, and their parents’ lives. She reigns over a pile of old wedding announcements, ancestors’ applications for citizenship, old Christmas letters, and schoolwork.

At the time of writing, Tan is in her mid-60s. She has preserved her long-dead father’s master’s thesis and old sermons. She has kept her brothers’ elementary school report cards. To write this book, she relies on these piles old paper to conjure up people and memories from them. She admits to being a packrat, saying, “Even the molecules of dust in the boxes are part and parcel of who I am.”

I found this object-based relationship to self off-putting. My first thought was defensive: So I have to keep every last piece of paper to write a memoir someday? Transport them from house to house forever? Cherish the dust itself?

I understand Tan’s impulse to keep things. I experience that same neediness to know the past — especially the histories of the people I love. It can make me a good detective when called for, but it’s not a productive impulse to let run wild (particularly in the age of social media, when I can get trapped looking at increasingly far-removed people’s profiles into oblivion). So indeed, what I found triggering about Tan’s approach has more to do with me than her.

Shortly before getting married this winter, I confronted a box of old journals my closet. It was heavy, packed with 10 or more filled notebooks from the last 15 years of my life. Those journals held entries from middle school about my crushes, entries from college about my crushes (this is a strong theme, unfortunately), collages from studying abroad – ticket stubs, letters from boys, friends, family members… copies of poems, artistically-drawn song lyrics, and all kinds of ruminating. I used journals to process my feelings when they got too big, needed an outlet, and my friends were burnt out on hearing me rehash whatever I was stuck on at the moment.

Shortly after I started dating Thom, I observed that my journaling habit started to dwindle. In retrospect, I was starting to figure out how to process emotions in real time. Journaling used to be my space for that, but I was learning to do it out loud, with Thom as my witness.

Over the last few years, whenever I opened the old journal box and started reading, I soon felt bogged down by old feelings. Why did X person do Y? goes most of my entries. Many describe in great detail super awkward interactions. I was stubbornly dedicated to writing the truth of my experiences and not romanticizing anything. I wrote minute-by-minute records of middle school dances. Who asked me to dance the slow songs, how sweaty they were, how self-conscious I was about being taller than them. My first makeout in high school, in the Haunted World cornfields, where I laughed because it was so bad, and then quickly had to recant that reaction to fix the stab to the boy’s ego. In college, shattering a wine glass in a boy’s room and him accidentally stabbing himself on the broken glass and needing to run for help. A guy at a summer internship telling me, entirely serious, that his birthmark meant that he’d had a had a former life (and my lack of one meant I was a “new soul”). I was way into boys, and every boy-related novel and movie, but I made a habit of writing the awkward truth of my own experiences. Eventually, I could usually find it funny.

Undoubtedly it was useful to write all of that stuff down, if only to preserve the memories. But to keep all of those pages around forever started to feel like a burden, especially after I met Thom and observed the very different way he moved through the world.

Thom has thrown away all of his old letters (except the ones from me… I think.) He’s never been able to keep a journal, either. And I mean keep in his possession. Even when he decides to start journaling, the journal will escape. The first summer I knew him, he left a filled-out journal from his summer of hitchhiking on the top of his car right after he returned home. He never found it. This fall, after briefly keeping a digital journal on his tablet, he lost the tablet in a cab in New York City (and his writing app was not backed up to the cloud). “God doesn’t want me to keep a journal,” he has concluded — and I concur. Thom is not a natural holder-onto-the-past. He’s not a grudge holder, or a ruminator. If he’s going to ruminate about anything, it’s the future (whether his plans and habits are a match for his goals and ideals). He writes things down, then the universe whisks them away.

I kept my box of journals at first, after we moved in together, thinking it was an important part of my history as a writer. I had never considered that it was anything other than essential to carry these papers around from house to house, along with my book collection, for the rest of my life. But watching Thom toss all of his old letters, lose his journals, and generally exist so freely (also without shoes, or very many clothes) — I started to feel envious. How did he get to be so free?

At some point, I realized there was nothing stopping me from joining him there. I just had to rethink my idea of what a reader is, and what a writer is. For as long as I can remember, I have kept piles of books and journals with me, because that’s how I know who I am. It’s tangible evidence, a grounding device, a reminder. I’ve been told I even did this as a toddler. But what if it didn’t have to be this way? Could I still write a memoir someday without a written record of all of my grade school crushes? Could I trust my memory of the past without checking my contemporaneous accounts?

I decided to give it a go. I threw away almost everything in the box. The journals from grade school, high school, college, studying abroad, my early years in Chicago. I emptied everything into the trash except my letters from Thom, my great-grandfather’s scholarly articles from his time as an English professor at Bucknell, and the “Princess Books” that my Uncle Kit had made for me on a few early birthdays. In other words, I kept things that made me happy, which turned out to be things created by other people.

I used to rely on my box of journals to prove to myself that I was a writer, and that my memories were real. But living without them, I’ve begun to realize that my passion for writing is not something that can be lost, or taken from me. Nor can my memories (at least, not yet). The writing impulse can be either used and enjoyed or left to collect dust. But the mere fact of the journal box can’t help me remember who I am as a reader and writer. Only the act of writing can. I have to keep practicing it, but I don’t have to keep the evidence.

I’m still working on paring down my book collection. I recently got a new Kindle, determined to commit this time around.

(This is my fourth Kindle. I sent back the first three, but now I am finally open to e-reading in a real way. It took a global pandemic.)

Easy for me to say, perhaps, as I type a blog that will be stored in the cloud. I can find information and photos as needed online without taking responsibility for the storage space it requires. But in any case, I’ve never felt more free.

“Your Move, Chief,” Or Why I Love Memoir

My Goodreads data reveals a curious pattern. Over the last three years, more than half of the books I have read have been memoirs. That percentage keeps growing. In 2020 alone, 13 of 17 have been memoirs.

It’s not just me, either. Memoirs have proliferated throughout my lifetime. Readers keep reading them, and more and more writers (and celebrities) are writing them. Most of my recent favorites came from the national bestseller list. These include Educated by Tara Westover, Maid by Stephanie Land, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle.

But why am I reading so many more memoirs than anything else? More than novels, short stories, poetry, or impersonal nonfiction? Am I just extremely nosy?

When I tried to answer these questions for myself last week (yet again fixated on Mary Karr and Glennon Doyle), the first thing that came to mind was the pond scene from Good Will Hunting.

Sean (Robin Williams) has been trying to provide court-ordered therapy to Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In their first meeting, in which Sean attempts to get to know Will, Will deflects and evades every one of Sean’s questions. It ends when Will goes on the offensive and speculates (noticing a painting on the wall of a lone man navigating a fishing boat on a stormy sea) that Sean must have “married the wrong woman.” Switching tactics for their second meeting, Sean takes Will to a park and delivers the following dressing-down:

You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? Something we need to devote some time to? – Will

The gist of the monologue is: Okay sure, Will, you’re extremely smart, good at retaining information, and making connections. But that, my friend, does not a man make.

Sean says:

I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. 

That’s it, I think. That’s why the memoir genre resonates with me, and why I consume insane numbers of them. I don’t read to educate myself; I read because I’m curious about people.

As Sean conveys to Will in the movie, it requires far more courage to share who you are and how you think than it does to quote or rehash someone else’s idea. Of course, Will knows this intuitively — as he demonstrates in the Harvard Bar scene, before he even meets Sean:

Who we are and how we see is the truest, most interesting thing each of us has to offer. In The Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr writes, “Most of us don’t read the landscape so much as we beam it from our eyeballs.” In other words, how we see comes from within; it’s a gift that cannot be stolen, only shared.

The same sentiment is captured in one of the final scenes from A Star is Born. Bobby (Sam Elliot) says to Ally (Lady Gaga): “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. . . All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

Other people’s stories, told well, do not get old. There are as many unique stories out there as there are people. I will happily read every single one of them.

* * *

Importantly, the truth value of a story has nothing to do with the number of shocking events in it. This perception of memoir is actually counterproductive and can tempt writers to falsity. For example, philanthropist Greg Mortenson wrote two bestselling memoirs about how he came to found a nonprofit supporting girls’ education in the Middle East. His first memoir, Three Cups of Tea (2007) was a national bestseller. I read it for a high school theology class circa 2010 and wrote a book report.

Shortly after Mortenson published a sequel, Stones into Schools (2011), investigative reporters, including John Krakauer, found reasons to doubt the veracity of both memoirs. (Read more about it here.) Krakauer ultimately published a book of his findings called Three Cups of Deceit. In any kind of nonfiction writing, readers have to be able to trust the narrator. Otherwise, the whole enterprise collapses. In other words, it does not matter how well you tell the story of getting captured by the Taliban if your readers find out that it never happened. If I had to burn books for fuel, these Mortenson memoirs would be the first to go. After all, who would read Three Cups of Tea now?

A second example of violating the cardinal rule of memoir-writing — that is, truth-telling — came across my desk this week courtesy of Thom:

Mike Lindell, i.e. the “My Pillow” guy, wrote a memoir titled What Are the Odds?: From Crack Addict to CEO. He boasts “14 near-death experiences,” and a story of “addiction, hope, and divine intervention.”

I don’t want to read Lindell’s book because I already don’t trust him. His promo reveals him to be an unreliable narrator. First, a grammar mistake: “Before this pandemic came upon us, I had already wrote. . . ” Then, he assures the audience that the book includes pictures that “validate” his stories. He concludes, apropos of nothing “By the time you’re done reading my book, you will believe that with God all things are possible.”

In sum, the only thing that really tanks a memoir, in my estimation, is any attempt to cheat the truth. The memoirs that have disappointed me over the years have been ones in which I can sense that I’m not getting the whole story.

This is particularly common (albeit understandable) with celebrity memoirs. Who knows if they even wanted to write the book. They have so little privacy as it is. It’s rare for a celebrity memoir to transcends this limitation. I remember reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, years ago and being disappointed. Even though it had funny moments and interesting stories, she refrained from any major introspection. She basically said “Someone made me write this for money; I would prefer not to talk about my divorce or anything personal,” and moved on to crowd-pleasing SNL anecdotes.

* * *

There is no one-size-fits-all version of the life story. We may arrive at the same central truths, the same 12 notes, but no one sees them in quite the same way as anyone else. Maybe that’s why I keep reading memoir after memoir. “It’s never new and it never gets old,” is how Llewyn Davis defines “folk song” in the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The same might be said of memoir, or life-writing.

As Sean says to Will on the park bench:

You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?

“Does that encapsulate you?” Well, no. I guess not. Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, “Getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.” That is all this is about, really. Your move, chief.

On Burning and Becoming: Glennon Doyle and Mary Karr Part II

Mary Karr’s poem “The Burning Girl,” published in Poetry Magazine in May 2017 and later in her collection Tropic of Squalor (2018) is a devastating poem about a girl suffering from various self-harm disorders. While Karr attends Wimbledon with a group of friends, she observes her friend’s daughter as follows:

Listen to Karr read it herself here.

Karr’s “burning girl” is not the powerful “girl on fire” Alicia Keys sang of. (See here.) Nor is she the fully feeling girl Glennon Doyle describes in Untamed:

“The fire of pain won’t consume me. I can burn and burn and live. I can live on fire. I am fireproof.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Here, pain is a refining force, an agent of transformation. Its fire burns down old paradigms and allows the new, better, truer ones to grow.

Doyle understands her past addictions and illnesses as the product of pain avoidance. She writes:

“Pain is not tragic. Pain is magic. Suffering is tragic. Suffering is what happens when we avoid pain and consequently miss our becoming. That is what I can and must avoid: missing my own evolution because I am too afraid to surrender to the process. Having such little faith in myself that I numb or hide or consume my way out of my feelings again and again.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

For Doyle, fire represents the uncomfortable feelings that come with being a human on earth — anger, sadness, resentment, hate, shame, etc. For nearly half of her life, she preemptively struck such feelings down with drugs, alcohol, binging and purging, etc. Letting herself become unguarded against these fiery feelings was how she healed.

But when I read Untamed last week, particularly the line: “I can burn and burn and live,” I was reminded of Karr’s poem. What of the real fear of getting trapped in the fire? How and why does that happen? What should we do about it?

“The Burning Girl” is not fireproof, she is tinder. Karr describes the girl’s arms as “birch twigs” and her body as a “flaming tower.” Even with “ocean endless” love from her mother, the girl’s flames are not extinguished, and ultimately, “she burned.” The past tense of this final line suggests that her body was consumed and she died. (So do interviews with Karr on this poem, in which she reflects upon the unimaginable pain of losing a child.) There is no resurrection, at least not here. The poet has witnessed the burning girl’s suffering in her last days, and that is all we have.

Karr compares the burning girl to “the monk who’d doused himself with gas, lit a match, then sat unmoving and alert amid devouring light.” Likewise, she reminds me of certain female Catholic saints and mystics who died of anorexia mirabilis, meaning “miraculously inspired loss of appetite.” For example, Saint Catherine of Siena died at 33 after she stopped eating anything other than the Eucharist. More recently, French mystic Simone Weil died at age 34 from self-starvation, allegedly out of solidarity with the soldiers fighting in World War II.

St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

So, again, what about people like these – girls who get stuck in the fire? Who set themselves on fire in a misguided search for the Good? Can we learn to differentiate self-annihilating fires from the fires that enable us to become?

The primary distinction, as I see it, is that Doyle’s fireproof girl is in motion. She walks through and beyond the fire. She is alive. Karr’s burning girl, on the other hand, is stuck in it, unmoving: “She sat with us in flames.” Soon, she is dead.

We are fireproof in a human way, after all, bound by time and flesh. This limits our ability to withstand it. We need to jump in the ocean afterwards. Then maybe we need a long interval of watching Wimbledon in the 70 degree, partly-cloudy weather, tonic and lime in hand. In fact, I think this last in-between place is where we would be lucky to spend most of our time.

The essential mandate of motion during the fire walk reminds me of the “Beach Day” episode in Season 3 of The Office. Michael can’t even take the first step; Dwight overdoes it, falling on his stomach into the hot coals, insisting on staying down until Michael gives him the manager job; and Pam does the fire walk as designed, then is brave enough to tell Jim how she feels about him.

***

Why is it that so many of us stop walking and get stuck in our pain?

For some, myself included, a simple but important answer might be brain chemistry. For whatever reason, I am prone to getting stuck. To do the fire walk, I need a pair of thick socks, or else I turn into Dwight.

For a long time, journaling, running, music, etc. kind of did the trick to propel me forward when I hit the fire, but recently I’ve discovered how much better it is just to coat my brain in fire retardant ahead of time. Importantly, it’s not a pre-numbing; it’s an extra layer of padding. As my husband Thom observed, Prozac allows me to feel my fiery feelings but then later, feel better. Cry and then stop crying. Get up. Keep moving.

Doyle acknowledges her own need for additional padding, or fire-retardant. She writes in Untamed: “I am on Lexapro, and I believe it to be — along with the personal growth shit — the reason I don’t have to self-medicate with boxes of wine and Oreos anymore.”

Per Doyle, pill nay-sayers are “two-legged people calling prosthetics a crutch.”

I am with Doyle here. There are few things I am more thankful for than the invention of SSRIs.

My brain, left to its own devices has done a variety of weird things upon encountering fiery feelings. It has stopped all other activity and made it its full-time job to numb itself to the pain — reveling in its success. Like the burning girl. Other times, it has gone in the opposite direction and become hyper-feeling, so ceaselessly buffeted by pain that it becomes obsessed with it. In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes his depressed self as follows: “My brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.”

Thus, in my experience, feeling too intensely can be just as confusing and destructive as becoming numb. I’ve tried to ditch pain — too cool for it — and I’ve also tried to get an A+ in pain. It’s as if my subconscious wants to outsmart all oncoming fires by beating them their natural conclusion. Meanwhile, this need to direct and control the fire only amplifies its importance; making its effect way worse than it was ever going to be.

Karr’s burning girl continues to haunt me. She’s dead and gone, not saved by the vast love shown her the poem. “She burned,” and there is no certainty of resurrection. Perhaps all we can do is bear witness — which is what Karr does. “Force her sadness close,” she writes. It seems insufficient. In moments like this, I turn to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets — that perfect meditation on human insignificance, temporality, and the circular nature of all things. Any excerpt might do, but here’s a favorite of mine:

Blessed Are the Untamed

Glennon Doyle’s Feminist Spirituality

I picked up Glennon Doyle’s new book Untamed at the recommendation of a friend who wrote to me in response to my Rebecca Solnit post. I was hoping, as I do when I pick up new memoirs, to escape into Doyle’s life for a few hours. I especially wanted to hear about Doyle’s marriage to soccer god Abby Wambach.

I soon found that Doyle’s purpose was not to rehash her story, but to ask me to reflect on my own. Her overarching goal — written in short, fiery bursts — is to teach women “untame” themselves, i.e. to challenge the external structure (*cough* patriarchy) that has molded women into a common, unhappy shape.

The task that follows recognition, per Doyle, is to remake oneself according only to an inner sense of the good. Doyle calls this her inner Knowing.

“So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful? Then our imagination rises inside us, thanks us for finally consulting it after all these years, and tells us a story.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Let’s get a good look at that vibrant cover art!

Based on the style of Untamed and Doyle’s corresponding social media presence, one might say that Doyle has become more preacher than memoirist. Rather than dwell on her long journey through pain and chaos, by which she finally arrived in the light, Doyle spends most of her time sharing the light she has found. Each short chapter of Untamed reads like a sermon, beginning with a personal anecdote and moving into a generally applicable metaphor about life, truth, and being human.

What makes Doyle unique, of course, is that she preaches to women, and the higher power she points them towards is found within.

No topic, question, or situation is excepted from the filter of Doyle’s inner Knowing; nothing is left to any external authority. Not even (or perhaps, especially not) the Bible. According to Doyle, the moral of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is not “when a woman wants more, she defies God, betrays her partner, curses her family, and destroys the world.”

Instead, Eve’s is a story of creation that begins with self-trust (replacing blind obedience), by which humanity enters into continuous, refining process of regeneration that is Life itself:

“Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Even John Milton, who would probably disagree with this take on Eve, would have to affirm Doyle’s right to filter the Bible through her inner Knowing. In 1644, in late-Reformation England, he argued against literary censorship in Parliament, saying:

“Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

And further:

“The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”

John Milton, “Areopagitica”

Doyle is not the first feminist to reinterpret Eve’s act as laudable. I found an archived New York Times article from the 1972 reporting on a feminist religious service in which the attendees recited the following in unison: “We hold that Eve performed the first free act.” But Doyle may be the first to help answer the question that follows after such an assertion: What next?

* * * *

In a gender studies class during my junior year of college, we read an article that posited that Christian notions of morality are primarily helpful for men seeking to become whole. For example, in my husband’s favorite Gospel narrative “The Sermon on the Mount,” (Matt. 5-7) Jesus teaches men to recognize the beautiful, undervalued capacities they have for building the kingdom of God; qualities tamed by patriarchal norms of masculinity. Jesus enumerates them as follows:

From The New Testament by David Bentley Hart. Matt. 5:1-12. He uses the word “blissful” instead of the traditional “blessed” because he says the Greek word originally had a connotation of “divine or heavenly bliss.” (Alternatively, this blog might have been titled: “How Blissful the Untamed.”)

It’s hard to imagine, based on the way Jesus operated, that he was speaking to a crowd of destitute mourners — gentle, merciful, and fighting for righteousness, when he first taught the Beatitudes. He was not known for preaching to the choir, as it were. He was known for challenging everything people thought they knew about God and religion. Surely, when he gave the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who were not expecting to hear this message. Perhaps his audience was men in power, out of touch with the suffering masses; out of touch with strengths within themselves that might change their society for the better.*

*(As I have been taught, the book of Matthew was written for a well-educated, monied Jewish audience.)

Clearly, the Beatitudes are not an assertion of patriarchal masculinity, but rather a call to its opposite. It’s strange, then, that the male keepers of the Christian tradition have applied the Beatitudes to women to uphold their secondary, subjugated, tamed condition within patriarchy. This message might be summarized as: “You are already virtuous, you who suffer and are subjugated, so keep doing what you’re doing.” According to a NIV bible I recently acquired (for research purposes…) called “The Woman’s Bible,” the “Beatitudes for Women” are as follows:

The “description” column is surely not advising a woman to leave her unfulfilling marriage to a man, upset her three children, and marry a woman, as Doyle did.

As I see it, there are a few approaches for untaming our understanding of God — particularly as women inheriting a patriarchal spiritual tradition. We can (1) change how we read the words of our spiritual texts; (2) keep some pieces and toss others; or (3) put aside the old texts and teachers and spend time in learning from newly untamed, female spiritual teachers.

One writer who works to challenge common interpretations of the Bible is Mary Karr. In her poem “Who the Meek are Not,” Karr redefines meekness as follows:

“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. Found here.

My now-husband, Thom, borrowed Sinners Welcome from me when we were seniors in college just getting to know one another. When he returned it, he highlighted this poem as one that had really resonated with him.

I had never taken particular notice of it, but I liked his noticing of it. Four years later, I can see how Karr’s portrayal of meekness describes Thom and how he moves through the world. There is great power within him — occasionally unleashed on the dancefloor — but he spends most of his time holding it back, listening intently.

It strikes me now that in order to understand Karr’s vision of meekness, one has to know what one is capable of. A woman must learn her unique strengths in order to exercise them. She must know recognize her power in order to check it. Doyle’s goal, in Untamed, and in preaching to women who follow her on Instagram, is to teach them to find the stallion’s great power within. (Except in her metaphor, it’s the cheetah.) Without knowing wildness, one cannot practice true meekness. It is useless for a woman to listen for the call of her inner Knowing if she does not believe in her ability to respond to it.

I have tried many times to figure out how to make the Bible speak to me without the impediment of patriarchy, or even the assumed-male reader. For example, I recently tried to change all of the pronouns in Proverbs:

After reading Untamed, I’m ready to put down project of re-writing the Bible and instead to let Glennon Doyle, and others, be my teachers for a little while. Beginning in late March, Doyle began conducting “morning meetings” on her Instagram, in which she spends approximately 10 minutes talking to her followers about her current emotional and/or spiritual state and offering wisdom.

I have started tuning into these meetings. Although the material is often repeated content from the book (likely spurred by having to cancel her release tour due to COVID-19), she makes it new for the day at hand. Occasionally we get to hear from Abby Wambach, too. One can tell that Doyle feels great responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of her readers and followers. For a writer, this daily communing and encouragement is certainly above-and-beyond. I find myself in admiration of it, of her.

Snapshot from a “Morning Meeting.” Check out her instagram here.

To close, I encourage anyone, especially women, to check out Untamed. And I offer its author, Glennon Doyle these rewritten Beatitudes:

Blessed are they who seek what is true and beautiful,

For they shall find it.

Blessed are they who listen to their inner Knowing,

For God is within them.

Blessed are they who see and challenge their taming,

For they shall be untamed.

Thanks for Nothing, Father Ted

“I didn’t need to talk to the girl. I talked to the boys.”

-Father Theodore Hesburgh

Last summer, I picked up the new Andrea Dworkin essay collection Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) and was surprised to find my alma mater featured.

In a speech Dworkin gave in New York in 1975, titled “The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door,” she describes a gang-rape that happened at Notre Dame in 1974, offering it as one of many examples of how male-founded and male-controlled institutions (such as the university and the justice system) are ultimately loyal to male interests.

“The girl” Hesburgh referenced was an 18-year-old South Bend high school student who was gang raped by six Notre Dame football players in a men’s dormitory on campus.

According to a reporter, the girl had driven immediately to the hospital after this happened, and the police investigator and prosecutor believed her story. And yet, per Dworkin: “All of the male university authorities who investigated the alleged gang rape determined that the victim was a slut. This they did, all of them, by interviewing the accused rapists. . . The coach of the Notre Dame football team placed responsibility for the alleged gang rape on the worsening morals of women who watch soap operas.”

Hesburgh had given the aforementioned excuse to a reporter, Robert Sam Anson, when Anson asked why no one from the university had interviewed the victim during the internal investigation. The university’s official position, after interviewing the six “boys,” was that no rape had taken place. The perpetrators were disciplined not for rape, but for having had sex on campus, which was against the rules. (In fact, it was still against the rules when I was a student at ND from 2012-2016).

The takeaway, then, is that Hesburgh and other Notre Dame administrators believed a story that went like this: six Notre Dame football players had sex with the one 18-year-old high school girl in the same room in one night, and this activity was NOT sexual assault.

(Anson’s article was titled “The Championship Season” and recapped here.)

“Our characters are defamed, as a gender class, so that no individual woman has any credibility before the law or society at large. Our enemies — rapists and their defenders — not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality . . . “

Andrea Dworkin

This story, comprising only 2 of the pages in Dworkin’s 400-page collection, lit me with fury. Nearly every day during my four years at Notre Dame, I walked through the student center and passed a prominently displayed picture of Fr. Hesburgh, in his priest’s collar, holding hands and singing with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. He is revered on campus, saint-like in the eyes of many for his courageous civil rights work. Perhaps that is why this barely-reported disregard of an 18-year-old rape victim came as such a blow.

Every ND student/visitor and/or South Bend resident knows this image well. It’s even been enshrined as a statue in downtown South Bend.

At the same time, that response was not surprising to me. This attitude of male-firstness remained alive and well at Notre Dame during my time there. We lived in gender-segregated dorms, and it was well-known that behavioral rules were much stricter in women’s dorms than in men’s. Guys could get away with throwing a raging party with booze and sex and loud music “as long as the door was closed”; girls could not. We girls had to venture into male-dominated spaces to be part of the weekend social scene — either that or watch Disney movies with our rector. As a result, to participate in the campus culture, we left our comfort zones. We were often in a vulnerable position because we were not in control of the spaces or the substances that made up the social scene; and moreover, because we knew the rules would likely be more strictly applied to us than they were to the boys.

“Gender relations” was a much-discussed a structural problem during my time there, and the subject of many an Observer “Viewpoint” column. The system was something we were frustrated by, but not something anyone believed they had the power to change. Allegedly, certain big donors would pull their funding if on-campus housing were ever to be integrated.

Academically and culturally, Hesburgh shaped Notre Dame into what it is today; everyone at the school believes that. He was president of the university for 35 years: from 1952 to 1987. While I was there, Hesburgh was in his last years, but still went to his office on the 14th floor of the Hesburgh library every day. He was mostly blind by then, but still lucid. I knew students who visited him and read him the newspaper. When he died during my junior year, Notre Dame held a massive memorial, with speakers including President Barack Obama. If Notre Dame Football is the House that Rockne built, then the University of Notre Dame is the House that Hesburgh built. And he built it on a foundation where men’s words were true and women’s words were irrelevant.

* * *

During my freshman orientation weekend at Notre Dame in August 2012, all of the women in my new dorm, Ryan Hall, were given a copy of a book called Thanking Father Ted. It’s a hefty book, 400+ pages, with a photo of Hesburgh on the cover. The book’s publisher, a 501(c)(3) called the Thanking Father Ted Foundation, defines their project as follows:

In May 2006, the ND Alumni Association asked a group of us alumnae in Chicago to plan the first ever event for alumnae only. We invited Fr. Ted to be the keynoter because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have our degrees.

That was also the message I picked up after reading the introduction to the book, and skimming its contents. In essence: But for this man’s legendary generosity, you wouldn’t be here.

Eighteen years old and two days into college, this was the first time I’d heard anything like that. Education for women had been a reality in America for a long time. Both of my grandmothers have undergraduate degrees, and one has a master’s. My Catholic high school in Boise, Idaho had been coed since its founding. Rightly or wrongly – at the time, I did not think that an opportunity to go to college was anything other than my right. I was surprised and confused to receive this message to the contrary right after crossing the threshold.

Father Ted first “allowed” women to enroll at Notre Dame in the fall of 1972. Two years later, when an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped by six football players in an on-campus dorm, Father Ted overrode an internal investigator’s decision to expel the perpetrators out of “compassion.” When I was an undergrad, nearly 40 years later, a one-year academic suspension (and no legal action) was standard punishment for guilty perpetrators in campus sexual assault cases. Thanks, Father Ted!

Over the years, Notre Dame has to national attention again and again for its horrible record on sexual assault cases. The most well-known case was in 2011, when a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Saint Mary’s student named Lizzy Seeberg. She reported the assault to the campus police, but was warned by a friend of her attacker that “messing with Notre Dame Football” was “a bad idea.” Seeberg committed suicide 10 days later. (Read that story here and here.)

“Remember, rape is not committed by psychopaths or deviants from our social norms – rape is committed by exemplars of our social norms.”

Andrea Dworkin

Soon after Seeberg’s death, and during my time as a student, small groups of passionate student activists and administrators were at work to make the internal investigation process more just for women and sexual-assault survivors. Many of these women were themselves survivors of campus sexual assault. During my time at Notre Dame, I knew of many stories of rape on campus that happened while I was there, stories that did not gain national attention. In fact, we got a university-wide email every time a sexual assault was reported. These alert emails came with startling regularity.

The activists gained ground slowly, but met a lot of resistance along the way – from boys who gigglingly wrote things like “No means yes, yes means anal” on their dorm-room white boards, to administrators who still hesitated to dish out any penalty greater than a one-year suspension, even in the most heinous cases. (This meant that sexual assault victims, usually women, had to switch schools if they did not want to see their attacker on campus again a year later).

All told, reading Andrea Dworkin’s work in 2019 made me wonder whether, had Hesburgh had used his power and standing as a moral exemplar differently, gender inequality and sexual violence would not have been the prominent issues they were during my time at Notre Dame. Had Hesburgh talked to the girl back in 1974, Notre Dame — and perhaps more universities following in its stead — might have been a different, better, safer place.

Growing Up Female: On Nonexistence

Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence resembles her many essay collections that came before it: provocative yet relatively opaque. She weaves ideas together, creates surprising connections, and guides readers to see their experiences in new ways (a la “Men Explain Things to Me”) — but she does not delve into personal details. Unlike other contemporary memoirists, she writes towards commonality. Through brief vignettes that begin with her own experiences as a young woman, she reveals the conditional of all young woman. She makes us visible to ourselves.

Thanks to Subterranean Books in Saint Louis, MO for shipping books during quarantine 🙂

As a reader and 26-year-old woman, I found this book hard to read — but not for the usual reasons. Solnit pushes right up to the edge of Emily Dickinson’s advice that “the truth must dazzle gradually.” Many of her conclusions felt like looking into direct sunlight. In a way, I need to write this review to process that initial sting.

Though her memoir collection also includes essays writes about growing up in San Francisco, studying the southwestern U.S., and becoming a writer, Solnit’s most powerful chapters meditate on feminism, i.e. growing up female. She uses the titular word “nonexistence” because “in my case, it wasn’t a silencing. . . no speech was stopped; it never started, or it had been stopped so far back I don’t remember how it happened.” Her goal, she states, is encouragement: “a word that, though it carries the stigma of niceness, literally means to instill courage.” To do so, she begins by examining how courage is ripped away from young women. She then discusses how they might go about getting it back.

Solnit’s careful recounting of her past nonexistence (in “silent fury”) shed new light on my own. I’ll explore a few such instances here.

“I became an expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away, backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at taking up less and less space on the bus as yet another man spread into my seat, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.”

“Life During Wartime”

For me, passages such as these yank to the surface a decade-long pattern of suffering under patriarchy, but not understanding what was happening to me, or knowing what to call it. Solnit’s words brought up so many memories; memories that make me sweaty and nervous; memories that make me sad about the state of the world; memories that, despite my efforts to bury them, inform the way I move through the world.

“Dodging unwanted hugs and kisses,” takes me back to my first job out of college as an executive assistant to a 69-year-old lawyer, a founding partner at a Chicago law firm and real estate attorney for one of the world’s richest men. He would ask me to dinner with business partners, take me out for drinks in the afternoon (“You’ve never had mezcal? I’m ordering it for you”), put his arm around me, ask me why I wasn’t having fun, try to kiss me in greeting (he got the cheek), tell me I was attractive, and make sex jokes to his coworkers, knowing part of my job was to listen to all of his phone calls and read all of his emails.

In response to this treatment, I, to my own frustration, did nothing but comply and evade. “Okay I’ll drink that,” “yeah I’m fine,” “haha,” “okay,” just get through the day and get out. I vented to my friends, where it was safe, but never to him. As Solnit describes, evasiveness stems from a fear of escalation. Escalation leads to violence. She writes, “Men would make proposals, demands, endeavor to strike up conversations and the endeavors quickly turned to fury. I knew of no way to say No, I’m not interested, that would not be inflammatory, and so there was nothing to say. They was no work words could do for me, and so I had no words.”

Eventually, I gave my boss what it seemed he wanted: I vanished. I packed my things and called him to let him know that I was quitting. To him, it was a shock; to me, it was the natural conclusion of his year-long effort to annihilate my personhood. That was in August 2017. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke two months later, I believed for the first time that I had done the right thing. (And considered that maybe I should’ve gone to HR, or Ronan Farrow – but that’s another story.)

“I erased myself as much as possible, because to be was to be a target.”

“Life During Wartime”

Maybe it started earlier than a decade ago. As a 10-year-old in Boise, Idaho, I took a Hunter’s Safety class with my dad, my friend Austyn, and her dad. Austyn’s dad was an avid hunter who wanted to take us duck hunting with him that season. I was game for anything – I just wanted to hang out with my buddy, even if the activity did not particularly appeal to me. The rest of the class was full of other young boys and their dads. One evening, as I remember it, the teacher called on me to answer what turned out to be a trick question. My hand had not been raised. He said, “You there.” I snapped to attention, the blood rushing to my face. “What’s the difference between bending the law and breaking the law?” I quietly began to stumble through some explanation of how the two might be different, but the teacher interrupted. “Wrong, he said, “there’s no difference.” Then another kid’s dad shouted: “Women, am I right?!” and the whole room cracked up.

I took away a feeling that it was dangerous to speak; that I lacked knowledge because of my gender; and that men only listened to me insofar as it gave them an opportunity to appear superior, or to make other men laugh.

“Thinness is a literal armor against being reproached for being soft, a word that means both yielding, cushiony flesh and the moral weakness that comes from being undisciplined. And from consuming food and taking up space.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Around 16-years-old, when my body started shape-shifting, I was horrified to be losing the one thing I had long been praised for — being skinny. When I tried to regain control of my body, I tripped some internal brain wiring and fell into the obsessive hamster wheel of an eating disorder. I went from 120 ish pounds to 96, eating with rigidity and running every day. I stopped caring about boys, about friends, about what people thought of me – which in a dissociative way, felt like freedom. But as my condition deteriorated, I realized it was a dark kind of freedom. When I began to fight against it almost a year later, it was because I began to understand that life had moved on without me – sports, friends, boys, prom etc. I had wholeheartedly embraced nonexistence, only to find that nonexistence did not lead to societal acceptance, but to a lonely death.

“And so there I was where so many young woman were, trying to locate ourselves somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive and being menaced or resented for being attractive . . . trying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Most of the compliments about my thinness (and disparaging comments about other girls’ thickening, maturing bodies) came from a grade school friend who later came out as gay. I still remember him telling me that I was pretty “because you are skinny” and that other friends were losing their edge for “fat thighs,” “mom butt,” or “grandma butt.” He called my best friend a “butterface” (i.e. everything looks good but her face). I have no idea how he’d explain himself now, but I imagine that it was a way of processing his own sexuality; of coming to realize that he did not desire women’s bodies, and, taking full advantage of his power as a white male, used his voice to disparage and reject them. As Solnit says, within patriarchy “no [woman] is ever beautiful enough, and everyone is free to judge you.”

It’s a hard truth that in my own experience, the harshest judges were men who felt disempowered themselves – gay men, awkward men, short men, etc. Men whose fathers talked about women disparagingly inherited their menace. It all rained down on the teenage girls in my middle school and high school. And it shaped how we entered the adult world.

“There was a real joy in the creative and intellectual life, but also a withdrawal from all other reals of life. I was like an army that had retreated to its last citadel, which in my case was my mind.”

“Disappearing Acts”
Solnit’s writing desk, given to her by a friend who had been stabbed 15 times by a violent ex-boyfriend. She writes, “Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice. Now I wonder if everything I have ever written is a counterweight to that attempt to reduce a young woman to nothing.”

Like Solnit, one of the only places I ever felt confident was in academia. Reading, writing, twirling ideas around my mind like a strand of hair around my index finger. If I am smart, so went my thinking, at least I have somewhere from which to draw courage. And writing was a place where I could say what I was thinking and feeling without fear of upsetting men — in other words, without fear of escalation.

Solnit’s greatest gift to me, and to all women, is finding the courage to become a writer (“despite it all”), and to hold fast to her perspective. She gives young women permission to question the literary and cultural canon, to investigate the untold impacts, and to push for change. She points out how many stories – told in books, on TV, in movie theaters, on podcasts, and in music feature the abuse, torture, and death of young women. Solnit observes this reality and its impact without agreeing that any of this (Tarantino, Eminem, The Ted Bundy Tapes) are productive, revolutionary, or attention-worthy works of art despite their commercial success. For me, that is a powerful permission to stand firm in my aversion to violent “art,” and to call it what it is: mundane.

In addition, Solnit gives herself (and everyone else), permission to put down canonical literary works that subjugate women, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac:


“I did like some things bout Kerouac’s prose style, just not the gender politics of the three men who were most often meant when people talked about the Beats. . . It seemed to me that I would never be the footloose protagonist, that I was closer to the young Latina on the California farm who gets left behind, and halfway through I put the novel down. The book was going to go on without people like me, and I would go on without it.”

“Diving into the Wreck”

I’d recommend Recollections of My Nonexistence to any and every young woman, with the caveat that it’s not easy to read. But as Solnit herself says, “Sometimes when you are devastated you want not a reprieve but a mirror of your condition or a reminder that you are not alone in it.” Solnit reminds me of this, and makes my experiences, my painful memories, less personal. It’s not my fault that I was taught to be skinny and silent, and that I then became my own oppressor. It’s not my fault that my efforts to push back against the system that annihilates women — efforts such as not wearing makeup, not shaving my body hair, or not wearing a bra – actually exacerbate my fear and self-consciousness when I enter public spaces. It’s not your fault, either.

I’d also recommend it to men. As Solnit points out, “One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of [] imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists.” She continues, “Perhaps there should be another term for never looking through the eyes of others, for something less conscious that even single-consciousness would convey.” I established that I have given permission to put down Kerouac (and DFW) thanks to Solnit. Still, I believe I am the better for knowing, intimately, the male reality — and for being taught (by default) to extend my perspective beyond myself.

It’s not always useful to spend a lot of time thinking about the things that make life hard or unfair. It can lead to despair. (In my case, it has to be followed by episodes of Parks and Rec.) What’s more — as Solnit emphasizes repeatedly, categories of doubly-oppressed women, such as young women of color, young women who are gay, or young women whose growing bodies otherwise deviate from Western beauty ideals, have whole additional systems working to exclude and disregard them. That’s a lot to face down, just to exist as a person every day. I don’t know what to do other than begin trying to take up space — even though it scares me.

For more on the treatment of women in Beat literature, read my earlier blog, “Watching Boys Do Stuff.” Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for giving me permission to quit the Beats, and all woman-erasing literature put to page before or since. Not only giving me permission to quit, but giving me something encouraging to read instead.

Solnit’s signature: a lesson in taking up space ❤