“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

~~~

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[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

[interview] Greta Christina on Writing Dirty Stories

[Content note: BDSM]

Greta Christina has a new book of kinky erotic stories out. It’s called Bending and I read it and it’s great. So I interviewed her about the book and the process and ethics of writing porn.

If you’re curious why I refer to them as “dirty stories” and not “erotica,” Greta herself explains in the introduction:

These are not ‘erotica’ — except in the sense that ‘erotica’ has become the term of art in publishing for ‘dirty stories with some vaguely serious literary intent.’ These are not tender stories about couples in love making love. (Except for that one that is.” These are not sweet, gentle, happy stories about unicorns fucking rainbows. (Except for the one about the unicorn fucking the rainbow.)

Here’s the interview!

Greta Christina's Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

Greta Christina’s Bending! Get it from Kindle, Nook, or Smashwords.

1. What’s your favorite thing about writing dirty stories? What’s the most challenging thing about it?

I have two favorite things. The first is the challenge as a writer. Can I shape my sexual fantasies into writing, in a way that other people find compelling? Sexuality can be so personal: our own fantasies are so exciting to us, but just describing them doesn’t automatically make them exciting to other people. Even if our fantasies overlap with other people’s fantasies, even if what pushes our buttons pushes other people’s buttons — just a description of what happens in the fantasy isn’t enough to make it exciting. Not to me, anyway. I have to find the real core, what exactly it is about this fantasy that makes it hot for me. That’s really interesting. It’s like therapy.

The other favorite thing is that it gets me off. Sinking deep into a sex fantasy, spending hours with it, closely examining it to find out what makes it hot… it makes my clit hard just thinking about it.

The most challenging things are very closely related to my favorite things. It’s very difficult to write porn that really captures the essence of what makes a fantasy exciting. Often, when I first flesh out a dirty story, I find writing it totally exciting and compelling… and then when I come back to it later for revisions, it just seems flat. I could feel the emotional and psychological resonance myself when I was first writing it, but I didn’t get it onto the page. So I have to look at how the characters are feeling about the sex they’re having, what it means to them, whether their lives will be any different because of this sex. I have to find a way to convey what it feels to be this person, or these people, having this sex.

Plus I have this thing about wanting my porn to be interesting and exciting… even for readers who don’t share my kinks. That’s one of my favorite things as a reader/ viewer of porn: if porn can get me off even when it doesn’t push my particular buttons, if it get show me what’s exciting and intriguing about sexual acts that don’t normally interest me, that is pure win. I want to give that to other readers. But it’s hard.

Also, getting back to how writing porn gets me off: If I whack off too early in the process of writing a story, I lose my momentum, and have to come back to it later. It’s a challenge to hold off on masturbating long enough to get a good chunk of the story out.

2. That story about the unicorn and the rainbow. What inspired it?

“The Unicorn and the Rainbow” was totally written on a dare. I perform in this regular erotic reading series in San Francisco, “Perverts Put Out,” and a couple of years ago I read a fiction piece, which I prefaced by warning the audience: “This is something of a disturbing story, it has elements of borderline consent and other content that some people may find unsettling.” And then I added, “But when do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and *not* say that? When do I ever come to ‘Perverts Put Out’ with a fiction piece and say, ‘This is a really sweet story, this is a gentle, happy, loving story about unicorns fucking rainbows?'”

And at the break, about a dozen people came up to me and said, “I really want you to write the story about unicorns fucking rainbows.”

Challenge accepted!

3. Do you believe that writers of erotica have any ethical obligation to encourage consensual sex and to discourage sexual assault? If so, what is the extent of this obligation? How can writers balance it with their desire to write stories that express fantasies that many people have, including fantasies about non-consent and manipulation?

That’s a very large question, and a tricky one. I don’t think I can give a complete answer to it in a brief interview. But I’ll do my best.

I’m not sure if I think other writers have that ethical obligation. But I certainly feel it myself. Especially since so much of my porn fiction is about non-consent, borderline consent, manipulation, abuse of power. I actually wrote an entire blog post about this, while I was first putting the book together: On Writing Kinky Porn in Rape Culture. do think artists — and not just creators of erotica, all artists — have a responsibility to try to avoid contributing to culture in a toxic way. But I don’t think that all art has to represent a Utopian ideal. Bor-ing!

Here’s how I dealt with this in Bending. I talked in the introduction about the difference between fantasies of non-consent and the reality of non-consent. I put a consensual SM resource guide at the end of the book, reiterating that these stories are meant to be fantasies and not a how-to guide, and directing people towards actual how-to guides. And I made the non-consensual content very clear, in the description of the book and in the introduction and in all the promotional materials… so people who don’t want to read about that stuff know to avoid it.

As for other writers… I don’t know. Did the creators of Ocean’s Eleven have an obligation to open the movie with, “This is just a fantasy, we do not recommend that you knock over casinos in real life”? That seems silly. But then again, rape and sexual abuse of power is very widespread in our world. Knocking over casinos isn’t.

4. Has writing dirty stories changed how you think about sexuality, kink, consent, etc? What have you learned from the process?

Again — large question! I could talk about that for pages. I promise I won’t, though. I’m just going to pick out one thing.

Before I started writing dirty stories, I was very interested in acting out non-consent fantasies in real life. (With consenting partners, obviously!) I was pretty blithe about it, actually — “la la la, I have fantasies about this all the time, why wouldn’t I want to act it out?” — and it was one of the great frustrations of my sex life that I hadn’t found a partner who was willing to do that with me. But writing kinky fiction has given me a lot more respect for the potential landmines in acting this stuff out. It’s important to me that my porn be believable, that it feel like it could be really happening with real people… but it’s extremely hard to write non-consent porn that’s realistic and believable, and that isn’t a horror show. Struggling with that made me realize how hard it is to translate some fantasies into reality — even just in the form of fiction. And that made me more cautious about venturing into those waters in my sex play, and gave me more respect for my partners who didn’t want to go there. I’m not saying I never would do that — but I would go in very slowly, and tread very cautiously, if I did.

5. Do you think stories like yours have the power to destigmatize kink and BDSM? How so?

I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. And I would hope that these stories might also help destigmatize porn/ erotica as well. I would hope that people reading these stories would recognize that smart, thoughtful, insightful, non-fucked-up people can be into this stuff. But I suspect that people who stigmatize kink — or porn, for that matter — aren’t going to read these stories.

6. One of the sections of Bending has stories in which religion is used to manipulate and coerce someone sexually. How did your own views on religion shape these stories, if at all?

Again — a very large question! I’m actually doing an entire guest post on this topic on JT Eberhard’s WWJTD? blog later on in the blog tour, on June 10. The tl;dr: I didn’t write religious porn at all until I became an atheist. Being an atheist writer and activist put religion much more on my radar — including the darker, more fucked-up elements of religion, and its huge potential for abuse of power. Which, of course, I passionately oppose in real life… and which, of course, my fantasies and my sexual imagination immediately began lapping up.

7. Which story is your favorite? Yes, you have to pick one!

“Bending.” No question. “Bending” is the novella that makes the foundation of this collection — and I worked harder on it than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life. (With the exception of Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Funny thing, how hard work pays off. Not always, of course — there are writers who have struggled for years over work that never came out right — but often.

And I think the length made a difference as well. Having the space, in the novella length of “Bending,” to really get into the depths and the details and the richness of my characters’ sex lives and sexual feelings, I think made it more powerful. Plus, in a novella, there’s space for the characters to really change and evolve. In many of my short stories, the stories end when the main character is about to make a change in her life. They end when the main character is about to open a new door, or close one behind her. In “Bending,” I was able to take the main character, Dallas, through that change. I think that gives it a richness, an extra dimension, that’s hard to get across in a shorter piece.

8. Which one was the most difficult to write?

And again — “Bending.” For all the same reasons that it’s my favorite. I worked harder on that piece than I’ve worked on almost any piece of writing in my life.

If your interest has been sufficiently piqued, Bending is available for purchase on Amazon, Smashwords, and Nook, and will soon be available as an audiobook and a paperback!

Also, if you want to see the other stops on Greta’s blog tour, here’s the ongoing list.

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

The Trivialization of Mental Illness

I’m reading a very interesting novel called The Four Fingers of Death. It’s somewhat science-fiction, with a distinctly Vonnegut-esque tone to it–very sarcastic and cynical. The story takes place in the 2020s, and the author, Rick Moody, gives several hints as to the general milieu of the future. Few people have cars as gas is very hard to come by, India and China are dominating the world, and paper books are mostly a thing of the past. One little detail that the narrator mentions several times–a detail that most readers would skim over, but that the author undoubtedly meant to make a point with–was the 8th version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Currently the DSM is in its fourth version–DSM-IV–but the DSM-V is in the works. However, in the world in which Four Fingers takes place, the DSM-VIII has medicalized all sorts of everyday issues, such as a disdain for hygiene (“aggravated hydrophobia with hygiene avoidance”), opening a game of chess in an unusual way, being rude to waitstaff, and speaking unusually (“conversational pseudo-uremia”). What completely got me, though, was when the narrator diagnosed a new friend with “mixed caffeine obsession with chronic caffeine dependence” when–get this–the friend suggested that they meet up at a coffee shop!

The author’s point, of course, is easy to see. It’s a satire of the supposed overdiagnosis of mental disorders even today, and of the presence of useless and non-clinical “disorders” in the DSM. As in, hahaha, at the way things are going, soon we’ll call not showering a mental disorder! To this point, the narrator of the story mentions that everyone has been diagnosed with a mental disorder these days. The way he talked about the DSM–“I flip through it looking for symptoms I have yet to contract”–makes this attitude even clearer. Through his satire, Moody implies that mental illnesses are not something to be taken seriously.

Forgive me for making a big deal out of a (probably insignificant) novel, but this mindset right here–that mental disorders are just some sort of farce invented by people yearning for attention for their minuscule problems–this is what’s responsible for one of the biggest threats to adequate mental healthcare in America. I’ll attack this mindset point-by-point.

First of all, contrary to popular opinion, “everyone” does not have a mental disorder these days. I’m sure you’ve heard someone comment, perhaps after hearing of another person’s diagnosis with a disorder, something to the effect of, “Oh, lord, everyone’s popping pills for something these days!” No. Everyone is not popping pills for something these days. Many people do, at some point in their lives, take medication for a mental issue. But most psychotropic medications are meant as temporary solutions while the person works on their problems in therapy or on his/her own. People aren’t meant to take them for their whole lives.

And even if every single person in this country does, at one point or another, take psychotropic medication, that doesn’t mean much on its own. Almost everyone takes drugs for colds or headaches at some point, but nobody seriously advocates against this. I use the word “seriously” carefully here–a radical diet book I came across recently, Skinny Bitch, claims that we should basically never take medication for anything. It says, “Yeah, getting cramps totally sucks. It’s supposed to. Every month you endure cramps (without medication), you are preparing for the physical pain of childbirth. So suck it up. Stop interfering with Mother Nature.” Pardon my coarseness, but I actually nearly crapped myself when I read this. What?!

Most of us are glad that with things like modern surgical techniques, dentistry, drugs, and diagnostic tools (like x-rays and blood tests), we now live happier, healthier lives. Before these things were developed, people had 40-year lifespans and got all kinds of gruesome illnesses. Similarly, back in the good ol’ days, people with mental disorders either spent their lives in misery, got committed to mental asylums, or simply offed themselves, depending on the nature of the disorder. If we can prevent that by having “everyone pop pills,” so be it–at least until we can find a better solution.

Second, the fact that some mental disorders may be overdiagnosed does not mean that every diagnosis is illegitimate. Some parents, for instance, push for their children to be prescribed medication for ADHD in order to help them get ahead in school, even if they do not actually have ADHD. It should be noted that there are standard screening procedures for this disorder that ensure that people are diagnosed correctly. If a parent gets their child to somehow cheat the screening tests, or if an unscrupulous doctor prescribes medication even though the child doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria, well, guess what–these people are being unethical. That does not mean that ADHD isn’t a legitimate disorder that many people–adults included–legitimately suffer from.

Furthermore, although some people probably do “imagine” their disorders and seek treatment in order to get attention, I should point out that this can only be a minority. There is nothing at all pleasant or fulfilling about spending hundreds of dollars, taking medications that give you really crappy side effects, and telling a complete stranger about the most shameful aspects of your life. This is not fun. Anyone who invents a mental illness and seeks treatment for it as a way to entertain themselves is an idiot.

I should also point out that even though some people do falsify their problems and some psychiatrists do overprescribe, this is a general trend that you can’t really apply to individual people. Unless you are a psychiatrist, you are simply not qualified to judge whether or not a particular person’s problem is “real” enough to merit treatment. Everyone told me there was “nothing wrong” with me and that I should stop being a crybaby, until it got so bad that my daydreams changed from imagining that cute guy from class asking me out to imagining which method of suicide is most effective. Don’t be the person who trivializes someone else’s illness. Just don’t do it.

Third, Moody suffers from the mistaken assumption–shared by many people–that the trend in the field of mental health is for increasingly insignificant and non-clinical problems to be classified as mental disorders. With this view in mind, it’s easy to see how the author could come up with the hypothesis that in 20 years, a disinclination to take showers could be considered a clinical disorder.

However, if there’s any trend here at all, it’s in the opposite direction. For instance, premenstrual dysphoric disorder–more commonly known as PMS–was in the DSM until the revision of the DSM-III in 1987. Much earlier, in the 19th century, women who suddenly showed a strong desire to have sex were labeled with the diagnosis of “hysteria.” The cure? An orgasm. (This diagnosis was also a catch-all term for any medical complaint made by a woman. Obviously, it’s not longer considered a disorder.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure that nobody who has this author’s opinion of the DSM has actually looked at one. I’m no DSM expert, but I’ve looked through it a number of times, and I can tell you that very few of the disorders listed in it seem trivial to me. (There are disorders that shouldn’t be there, perhaps, but for different reasons. For instance, gender identity disorder, which refers to a very strong feeling that one has been born into the wrong sex, is probably in the DSM because psychologists have assumed that it leads to a lot of distress and problems for the person who has it. Before it was possible to change one’s biological sex, that was probably true. But today, it has become clear that if a person who’s “suffering from GID” is able to change their sex, things get better. The remaining problems are caused more by society’s lack of acceptance for trans* people than by their psychological makeup.)

However, Moody is echoing the prevailing cultural sentiment that mental disorders are nothing but insignificant little problems that people have in their daily lives. If this were true, popping pills to solve these problems would indeed seem pretty silly. However, it’s not true, and unfortunately for those of us who have to struggle to find adequate mental healthcare and to get friends and family to accept and understand that struggle, people like Moody are busy spreading this misconception around through various media–in this case, a satirical novel.

Contrary to what Moody seems to think, recognized mental disorders cause significant problems in daily living, relationships, and work. Some involve hallucinations or delusional beliefs. Some involve uncontrollable episodes of panic, which are said to feel somewhat like heart attacks. Some cause people to be unable to experience pleasure from anything they do (this is called anhedonia). Some cause people to become so preoccupied with cleanliness, order, and performing particular rituals that they are literally unable to go through the day without taking care of these things. Some keep people from getting a good night’s sleep–ever. Some cause people to try to throw up every bit of food they eat, or stop eating altogether. Some cause people to want to kill themselves.

Do you see anything trivial here? I don’t.

Bookman's Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. :D

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.