HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

HerKind has had an exciting run, but has now been retired. Don’t fret! VIDA activity is now all centered on one site: VIDAweb.org! There, we’re hard at work bringing you the most relevant, insightful, and evocative articles and updates. All your favorite past articles and essays will still be archived here, as well, but make sure to visit the new VIDA site for all of our up-to-date content!

If you’re interested in writing for VIDAweb, check out our new content and contact us at VIDAweb.org!

HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

What Makes Books Dangerous?

by Jenn Monroe

This is the question I pose to students in my Banned Books course as their final exam. I ask because I know they are hungry to tell me why sexuality, race, religion, and politics fire people up, and what the attitudes toward censorship indicate about the interplay between these things.

We’ve been talking about this since day one, when I gave each student the list of the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books. They were not surprised to find many of their favorite authors—J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut—or noted classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye—but others totally shocked them: “Who would want to ban Captain Underpants?”

Literature has been suppressed since at least the advent of the printing press, and for one (or a combination) of four “reasons:” religious, political, sexual, or social. While few books in the U.S. are actually banned today, ALA statistics show many are challenged every year. The majority of these challenges are made to materials in schools or school libraries, by parents.

These figures do not seem to surprise my class. Collectively they express an understanding of a mother wanting to shield her own child, but they bristle at the idea of complete censorship. Some ask how banning can be possible with “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. What perplexes most, however, is why anyone would care about what they wanted to read.

As we begin to read, the answer takes shape. To examine literature suppressed on religious grounds we read Confucious, Kant, Darwin, Luther, Goethe, and Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve. Then we tackle those suppressed for political reasons: Machiavelli, Marx, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun. Next, we move to those considered obscene: Go Ask Alice, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We end the semester with one text suppressed for “social” reasons: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Along the way we take up the “free speech” question considering cases from recent news and Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. At the end of his prologue Hentoff welcomes readers with this: “As you will see in the chapters ahead, censorship…remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second.”  We also debate Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too. In his introduction he argues “…the First Amendment does not in and of itself…direct a politics but will display the political ‘spin’ of whatever group has its hand on the interpretative machinery…”

In the early days of book banning, religious leaders and monarchs alike maintained control of vast populations as long as they controlled the messages about God and country. It was in their best interest to ban, and burn, contradictory texts (and often their authors). Later, more democratic governments concerned about obscenity and controlling the spread of Communism, banned texts that promoted those ideas.

My students see the relationship between controlling messages and power, and agree this cannot be the reason why individuals work to remove books they deem dangerous. Eventually we decide people must feel threatened by texts that offer ideas counter to their own. This, however, confounds my students even more. Most say they have read materials they disagree with, yet they did not, and would never, try to ban them.

Thus another question arises: how does someone move from simply holding a different opinion about sex, religion, politics, race, gender, etc. to pushing for a ban on the materials that put forth another perspective? What is so scary about diverse ideas? What are they afraid will happen?

I am lucky. My students are all studying to become creative writers or visual artists, and most of them were allowed to read whatever books they found interesting. Few come from dogmatic backgrounds, and if they did, they have done enough individual exploration to come to my class with a wide-open mind.

Because of this, it is not easy for them to grasp that many people find the unfamiliar scary and often reject “the other” out of protection. One could assume, however, the more experience with people and ideas that are different, the less frightening they would become.

But are we naturally drawn toward those experiences?

I ask my students how often they read articles or listen to programs that offer ideas, beliefs, and opinions that differ from their own. Then I ask them to consider whether or not the messages that support their thinking offer facts to bolster their opinions or simply deny the validity of “other” ideas. Do they promote their position as “right” and others as “wrong?”

We take it further: what would happen if we chose to censor all other points of view? If we insulated ourselves only with messages and people who agree with us, closing ourselves off from opportunities to learn about alternate approaches. Would we ever overcome our fear of difference? Would we ever not feel the need to protect those we love?

From this perspective, a book that promotes a reality counter to our own is inherently dangerous. It is a direct threat to our core beliefs and suppressing it would appear the most effective way to keep it from doing any harm to our family and community.

My students understand, but they cannot accept how someone could ever be that afraid. I know their struggle is personal—they cannot see themselves taking that step—so I joke that if they want to be famous, they should write a book that will be banned. We laugh, but I silently wish none of them will ever need to.

Jenn Monroe’s Banned Books course syllabus

What Makes Books Dangerous?

My Personal Haircut

by Lynne Schmidt

I’m seven years old and naked in the shower. To my right is the typical things you’d find: shampoo, conditioner, soap. But there is also a pink single razor staring back at me. My sisters are both old enough to shave, and they ask my mother for new razors when theirs rust. Two years behind my older sister, I haven’t begun the rite of passage.

I know two things at this moment: I’m a girl, and because I’m a girl, I’m supposed to shave. But…what exactly am I supposed to shave? I look down at my prepubescent body. My leg hair is fairly stubby, but mostly invisible thanks to the blond hairs. I look to my arms, which kind of resemble a hairy monster. It’s like my body is telling me what’s right. For the next six months, I shave my arms because that’s what girls do.

Later, I was informed women shave their legs, so I left my arms alone and began doing what girls actually do. It wasn’t until late into middle school when my formerly blond pubic and armpit hair began to darken. I knew to shave my armpits, but no one ever said anything about my crotch hairs, so I left them alone.

Adventures and sexual escapes in high school never told me otherwise. Plus, I figured that if a guy had his hand down my pants, perhaps that should be the last thing to worry about. Adventures and sexual escapades in college would have guys tell me, “No one will ever go down on you if you have pubes,” yet their advice was wrong. The few guys who did give me oral sex never complained about my pubic hair cut, or lack thereof.

As a sophomore, I dated a timid yet beautiful blue eyed, dark haired boy. He’d never had a girlfriend before. As his hands began to dive into my pants, and mine into his, he stopped short. “Does my hair bother you?”

My hand stopped moving. I chuckled, surprised by the question. “No. Does mine bother you?”


And like that, we continued along.

After feminists raved about The Vagina Monologues, I dragged a different significant other to a show. In the audience, I listened to a woman recount another woman’s story. Her husband was cheating, because “if she’d shaved down there, I’d find her more attractive.” Their couple’s therapist suggested shaving the wife, together. They did, and she bled. She recounted pieces of herself falling into her hands. It hurt her, but they continued despite when the razor would slip and injure her private area more.

In the end, she was shaved.

In the end, her husband still cheated.

Sitting in the audience as I heard this story, I made a promise to myself that I would never shave anything for a guy.

Still, when my body would be explored, and underwear would be moved to the side, my little black hairs would get caught, and tug, and hurt. So I began to experiment with my hair style, eventually settling on a “landing strip” and barely (but still there if I’m lazy) there under area. I didn’t look or feel like the seven year old girl lost and confused in the shower. Instead, I felt like the twenty-something-emerging-woman taking control of what I wanted my body to look like.

Adventures post-college would have guys hovering above me, mid thrust asking, “So, next time we do this, can you trim up a little bit?”

“Sure,” I’d answer, but I would remember The Vagina Monologues. I’d remember the promise I’d made to myself. If he’s still able to get off, my pubic hair should not be a big deal.

I have met and been with guys who have told me with and without clothes on I’m beautiful. I have been with guys who have manscaped themselves, and guys who’ve been hairy. I have been in unhealthy relationships where my significant other and I emotionally destroyed each other, and I have been in healthy relationships where we’ve pushed each other to do great things with our writing, our careers, our lives.

In the years since my pubic hair has grown in, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on whether or not I want to keep them there. I’ve continued to shave my legs, and my armpits, and from time to time chop my head-hair very short. I make these decisions. I decide if and when I want to shave or cut anything.

In the end, after I’ve had several men disparage me from keeping my little black hairs on my otherwise blond body, I’ve determined that it’s no one else’s decision to make but my own. If I am with a man who prefers me to look like an eleven year old girl, chances are I don’t actually want to be with him. If I’m with a man who truly values me, not just my body, he’ll accept all of my bodily hair styles, not try to push me into a hair cut I’m not comfortable with.

Unless, you know, he’s willing to get all of his hair waxed.

My Personal Haircut

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

by Christine Clifford

Twenty years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty, my biggest fear wasn’t about dying: it was about losing my hair. I don’t know why it was so important to me, but at the time, I was a busy executive; I had young children and it just seemed so . . . visible.

It fell out with a vengeance; and I wore my wigs and my hats for one year, four months and twelve days. But who was counting?

Fortunately for me, my kids were only ten and eight at the time. So when my older son, Tim, approached me and said that all the neighborhood kids wanted to draw on my newly bald head, I happily complied.

My mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 42, but I always knew if I ever had to lose those particular assets of mine, I always had my best asset: long, thick, curly luxurious brown hair. My friends all kept saying things like, “Christine, don’t worry about it. When your hair grows back, it will grow in thicker, curlier, and more beautiful than ever.”

I don’t know about any of you who may have been through this experience, but when my hair grew back, I looked something like a cross between Andy Warhol and Lyle Lovett. It came back all gray. It was absolutely stick straight. But I have to tell you, it felt wonderful to be able to say, “I’m having a bad hair day, instead of a no hair day.”

And what cancer and my bald head did for me twenty years ago was to reiterate one of those life lessons we all learned as children: beauty is only skin deep. It’s what’s inside that matters. So now, here, I find myself twenty years later, and breast cancer has come back into my life again. This time, I had to have double mastectomies as opposed to the lumpectomy I had in 1994, and reconstruction is a topic I could write on for hours, if not days. But once again, I am bald.

It’s funny, though, actually. I’m treasuring each tiny little eyebrow or eyelash that still clings to my body. Shaving my legs? Wouldn’t even think of it! After all, it’s hair! It’s amazing how different you look without it, and yet, it is far, far easier! Getting ready in the morning has become a ten-minute ritual instead of an hour ordeal.

I’m reminded of a book I read when I faced this baldness the first time around. The super model of my era was Cindy Crawford, and she wrote a book titled Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face. As I read through the book, Cindy talked about how even one tiny little eyebrow could make all the difference. I figured if she’d just give it to me, I’d plant it on my head!

I’m reminded of an awkward situation that played out in my life many years ago. The year I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I decided to take a break from my treatments and the cold Minnesota winter. We flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, where there was a professional golf tournament going on: The Tradition on the Senior PGA Tour. We bought tickets, and we were standing on the third tee, watching my three idols in golf tee off: Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, and Tom Weiskopf. A gust of wind came up and blew my hat (and my hair!) right off my head and into the middle of the fairway. The gallery went silent. My golf idols stared at me as my hair was in their flight path. I took a deep breath, slipped under the ropes, wandered into the middle of the course, grabbed my hat and my hair, and turned to the golfers. “Gentlemen,” I offered, “the wind is blowing left to right.”

They said the laughter could be heard all the way back to the clubhouse, and I realized that once again, laughter is the best medicine. Don’t forget to laugh!

I’ll get through my treatments, and reconstruction. My long-term prognosis is excellent. And I know, too, that one day, I shall have hair again.

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

To Hair or Not to Hair?

by Millicent Borges Accardi

OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a hippie. Or if not a complete tree-hugging commune living hitchhiking 1960s hippie I am at least hippie-esque. My god babies think I am the epitome of hippidome—through and through—and, with my hippie shack in Topanga, with its river-rock bathtub and my bearded-artist husband, backyard veggie garden, and an aversion to all or most things artificial, except for plastic picnic dishes, I have come to embrace at least a small part of the psychedelic 60s earth mother package. I do after all live in the hippie capital of the United States—Topanga Canyon, a rural zone filled with creekers (poor hippies) and peakers (rich entertainment-type hippies) about halfway between Santa Monica and Malibu, off PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).

Long ago our mothers and our mother’s mothers gave up girdles and burned their bras to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Jane Fonda on a loud speaker, yelling about the Vietnam War and the dangers of antiperspirant. Our mothers grew their hair long and stopped bathing. We ate sprouts and avocados. My mom threw together shakes made of wheat germ, dates, raw eggs, and soy.

Flash forward to 2013.

The world is suddenly filled with New Age hippies, crystals, gluten-free bread, and Om chanting. In yoga classes no one wears perfume; outfits are organic cotton or hemp. We all bring the requisite, glass or aluminum, refillable water bottle and rubber mats. We pour on essential oils and drink baby coconuts when we are thirsty. We shop at farmers markets or CSAs. We can fruit and make our own juices from kale and beets. We meditate and look for new and better ways to reduce our carbon footprint and expand our womanly goddess out into the universe—stronger, fierce, defiant, true, brave and wonderful. The earthly-female quotient of the goddess. We expand our Kundalini and chant Ha-Ha-Ha as if we were Amazon warriors off to battle the universe into peaceful submission. We sing Shanti, shanti, shanti and nod Nameste to each other in our blessed-out, peace-loving humankind existence.

And yet.

Why the heck do we all STILL shave our bodies like secretaries on Mad Men or Jackie Kennedy? Look around and see the free modern women of this millennium. We have embraced every opportunity to grow as spiritual beings and women and au natural is de rigueur—legs shaved, or waxed, underarms prodded and scraped until smooth, hours spent at spas to achieve the perfect Brazilian, hairless sex organs!

What IS this?

Why in this day and age is packaged food seen as bad and yet women still feel compelled to shave their bodies? In a casual survey, if you ask ten women, you will get comments like this: “It’s “gross” or “Ew,” or “It LOOKS bad.” (Same is true with plucking eyebrows or going grey.) Vegan, gluten-free, Yoginis who swear by their raw foods and hemp pajamas think nothing of coloring their hair, getting a wax, plucking their eyebrows, and shaving their legs on a daily basis.

When I peel off my sweatshirt at Topanga Days or the Reggae Festival I get stares about my glorious hairy pits. In the land of freedom and naturalness, why are hairy underarms seen as an abomination?

Why are we still buying into this male-dominated view of what is beautiful? In France, women proudly strut hairy patches visibly under bikinis and raise their hairy armpits in sleeveless smocks to grab the strap on the Métro. Why is hair such a hang-up in the U.S.?

Victorian John Ruskin was supposedly so horrified on his wedding night by his wife’s hairy nether regions that he never consummated the marriage. I suppose he never imagined women had hair too?

It’s clear that decades of advertising and conditioning have embedded in us this fear of the natural state of hair. Why have women rebelled against everything BUT hair removal? Why can’t we learn to love our hair, wherever it grows?

I stopped shaving my legs and armpits when I took a job as an artist model in college. Perhaps it made me feel more covered up? I just found I liked the look and feel of it. It was a great relief not to have red rashes under my arms, to throw away my razors. And, yet, for many years I still shaved for “special occasions,” like formal parties or weddings, places where I had to wear stockings and/or a sleeveless dress. I caved to public opinion and did not want to be abused or to draw attention to my lack of, shall we say, grooming? Recently Julia Roberts was lambasted by TMZ and the gossip media for showing up to a movie premier, in a sleeveless gown, with visible underarm hair. You would have thought she committed murder, the stories that were posted. People were aghast.

I remember my grandmother and my Aunt Lucy not shaving under their arms. In 6th grade when I decided to shave my legs, my grandmother warned me that once I started it would be impossible to stop. She told me shaving made legs hairier, and the more I shaved, the more I would need to. And, she was right. I just did not know it then.

I wear tank tops in yoga and usually go to the same studio, but I still notice stares and weird faces when people look at me. After awhile, people are trained and their eyes, avert. And yet, in the 8 years I have gone to this studio, no one else has joined me in my quest for being truly au natural. Initially, I thought I would have a few hippie sisters in crime. Us bold, daring chance-takers. But no. It has not happened quite yet.

Hairless armpits have been called more sanitary. But why? It seems to have started around the time of the first women’s revolution in the Jazz Age of flappers. For the first time, arms were let out of their clothing-cages and someone, somewhere, decided hair was unpleasant. Silent films like Cleopatra helped establish this hairless trend.

However, we have grown as a society, why do we still today? Are our hippy-dippy, new- agey lives STILL ruled by fashion? Advertisers?

Hair is sensual. The Joy of Sex even says hair adds to the overall experience of touch. It is and can be its own erogenous zone, ripe with scent and a gateway to the skin, our largest organ. Why shave and lose sensation?

In short, what is so horrible about body fur? I like the way my pits feel with hair. I like my legs in their natural state. It feels comfortable. I also like men with chest hair and beards. I like the touch and feel of skin and hair and bodies being natural bodies together.

Underarm hair in particular has a job. It cushions the air around the armpits so the sides do not rub against each other. Like every other part of our body, it is functional, providing ventilation, cooling, and less chaffing.

Why do so many people consider underarm hair vulgar, unclean?

To Hair or Not to Hair?

Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

by Lisa Wells

I’ve spent the last two weeks with a group of hilarious, mega-bright teenagers at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, an immersive writing camp in Iowa City. The other night, on our floor of the dorm, I listened to a girl’s passionate rant about the pressure to write “cisgender teen romance stories” about vanilla dudes who fall for quirky girls. “That’s how you win the contests,” she said. She wants to write about weirdos via hybrid text, but fears there’s no market for stories like that. It was a lament I’d heard from adult writers on countless occasions, in public and private, only this time it was delivered by a seventeen-year-old girl from New Jersey. I’ll admit, it floored me. She was born in the mid-90s for christ’s sake and already feeling commercial pressures? The limits of her gender? Yes and yes, as it turns out. The naiveté was all mine.

I decided to talk to a few of the girls about their experience of writing and gender on the record. Here’s what they had to say.


I’m Bindu, I’m 17. I’m from Princeton, New Jersey.


What kind of writing do you do?

I write poetry, prose poems, flash fiction—that kind of thing.


How did you become interested in writing?

It’s kind of a strange story. I used to read my sister’s diary when I was very young and I thought it was funny how she would talk about herself. I wanted to keep a diary too, but I felt self-conscious about writing in the first person, so I started to fictionalize events. It stemmed from there. I wrote a lot and then teachers told me I was good at it.


Do you think about your gender as a writer?


I’ve always felt that male writers and female writers write differently. I go to a girls’ school and I think my experiences and the way I observe things are extremely feminine.


Did you want to go to an all girls’ school?

I did. I found that sometimes I was intimidated to raise my hand in a co-ed school and now I don’t think that I would have that problem. I definitely think that I have grown.

Like you were liberated by the all girls’ situation?

Yeah. I’d definitely say so.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

Yes I do.


What does that mean to you?

It means that if no one else were to stand up for me I’m fine standing up for myself. I want equality, emotionally; I want equality in all ways. And I’ve been denied that so it’s very important to me.

It took me a long time to find my voice.

Do you think there is a perception about what it means to be a female writer as opposed to a male writer?

I appreciate literature; if it’s a good book it’s a good book. Women are acute emotional observers and I think there’s a lot to gain from that. . . . A girl will read a book centered on a male protagonist but it’s rarely ever the opposite and I think that’s a shame because women have a lot to offer.

You don’t feel like men want to read about women?


It’s the same with television shows. I’ve noticed that women, you know, they’re never the main character. Their goals are limited to finding love, and they’re always in the same age bracket of maybe 18 to mid-30s. You never see a show about a woman outside that gap.

I think the experiences of women are not marketable unless they have some kind of sex appeal to them.


That’s really depressing.

It’s not just men who discriminate against literature and media about women, it’s also women. The demographic of television watchers is actually more women but it’s always geared towards men. And women tolerate that because it’s the norm.


Who are the women in your family?

I have an older sister. My sister is extremely, extremely ambitious. She is studying neuroscience at Cornell. My mother has an interesting story. She grew up in India, she was extremely poor, and she had an arranged marriage. She studied engineering; she was one of three girls in that college, and she was often harassed for it. She was set up in an arranged marriage with my father. He came over on a 15-day vacation from his job at NYU, married her, and left. She stayed with her in-laws for two years waiting to get her visa.


Will you be arranged?

No. Slowly my parents have begun to see that if they are going to live in a different country then they have to make sacrifices and I’m pretty grateful for that.


Was that ever on the table?

Oh yeah.


Do you plan to write? I’m trying to get a sense of how people are feeling about their prospects. Do you feel hopeful?

Not particularly. I attended the Yale Writers Conference and there was much talk with editors of literary journals about the differences in the market between women and men. For example, they talked about how when they send a rejection letter to a man the man will immediately send over another piece of work, whereas if you send a rejection letter to a woman, even if it’s not your standard letter, even if it’s full of comments that mean you were close to publication, they don’t answer—maybe not for six months to a year. Someone from The New Yorker came over and she was talking about how men will say, “Oh yeah, I’ll take that job” or take an article, even if they don’t know anything about it, but a woman wouldn’t do that. So I mean . . . I would like to be hopeful but I’m not, really . . . but I would like to be.

What kind of person is called a bitch?

It can range from any one who is confident in her abilities, or someone who really just knows what she wants, to someone who is genuinely meanI don’t know why it includes ambitious people. I don’t know why it’s derogatory towards people who are really just trying to elevate themselves. I think it’s a method of intimidation.


So a woman who tries to elevate her career might be called a bitch? What does that do to her?

I guess it feeds into this whole thing about how younger women shouldn’t want too much or expect too much. It’s a way to put them in their place . . . this domestic secondary place.

Check out Bindu’s TEDx Youth talk on female body image in the context of culture and history.


My name is Elena Saavedra Buckley. I’m 17. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Do you have a primary genre?

Poetry definitely. I went to the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop last year, and while we were there we wrote fiction, short stories, flash fiction, poetry—everything. I’m just realizing that my thoughts organize themselves as poetry, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on.


Say more about that.

I think I have a brain that likes to spread itself out and pick up little bits of information from a lot of different fields and a lot of different topics, and that just seems to create poetry.


You’re taking these disparate elements and finding the connections?

Yeah, exactly. Through my life I’ve been interested in a lot of different things—music and food and art. I’ve been really interested in science recently. I think the world of science intersects in these interesting and condensed moments with the art that I really love.


Can you think of any poets that work in the way you describe?

I think Wallace Stevens does that. His poems seem to encompass everything in the world, but they happen to be in the form of language. We just read an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “In the Waiting Room,” and oh, it was like a religious moment reading that poem. It was the intersection between being a person but also knowing about the world, and . . .

She’s looking at a National Geographic. That’s one of the last poems she wrote, right?

Yeah, but it’s from the perspective of when she was seven. Which is also really interesting.


And it’s one of the few autobio poems that she wrote. I remember this. There’s something about a confusion of voices—

And she’s with her aunt and there is the suggestion that she’s not really close with her aunt and that they have a weird relationship. It says so much by not saying, by just focusing on one moment.

How did you come to writing?
Since I was really little I’ve liked putting my feelings into words. I used to make a newspaper of my family, when I was six or so, and then I would roll it up and throw it into the room that my family was in and run away. I got really into classical music when I was twelve. I started a blog about classical music. So I was writing essays on classical music and the contemporary classical music world. And that was a really great way to give myself something to do.


Who are the women in your family?

My mom is a family practice doctor. My aunt Barbara lives in Berkeley and I’m really similar to her in a lot of ways. In the way that we view the world and spread out our interests. I’m really close with her. She’s a death row lawyer in California. Those are the two strongest women in my life.

I’m curious to know how having accomplished female figures in your life relates to your decisions.

My dad took care of my brother and I; he was sort of the stay-at-home dad when we were little. That was always something that I knew and accepted. I’ve always thought of my mom as a strong leader.


When you think about yourself as a writer, do you think about your gender?

I don’t really know . . . actually no. Because the experience that I’ve had being a writer has been at camps like this that have had such a strong female presence. I think I remember Alexa saying that a lot of the strong accomplished writers you see are male, but then it’s really interesting to come to these camps and 70 percent of the attendees are women. So I’m not really sure if this is an evolution or just a disconnect between development and success. My demographic is so dominated by females, I feel very normal being a female poet.

Maybe in your generation there will be more successful female writers?

Yeah, I think so. The percentage of people who go to college is shifting towards females, so yeah.

When I was your age I didn’t really think about gender issues so much . . . I mean I had some awareness but . . . I just wonder have you seen the VIDA count?

I’ve seen statistics released about women in the work place or women going to college, so I’m familiar with things like that.


Because as an older woman it’s easy to speculate as to what that might do you to you as a younger woman to see those things. But I don’t know.

Like it would intimidate us to see statistics like that.

I mean do you feel like the world is your oyster or do you feel like your gender is going to bar you from—

—Yeah, I do. I don’t think, “the world is my oyster,” but I feel like someone who can accomplish a lot. Being female, especially in the humanities, doesn’t really intimidate me.

I’m also really interested in astronomy and there are parts of scientific fields that sort of intimidate me because the astronomers—a lot of them have been males. But then again, I think those templates are disintegrating so it’s easier to feel power as a female now because we can see that it’s changing and we know that we are in the current of change.

That’s great. I’m interested in what it takes to be a bitch—what makes someone call another person a bitch. I remember as a kid I was often called a bitch because I would push back against guys in my class who tended to dominate conversation, you know?

That relates to what I was saying about . . . I don’t have to fight as hard because things are changing, and that sounds sort of passive, but I think there is power in recognizing that the fight is being won over a long period of time. Like, I do choose to be a calming presence in a lot of situations—not to be sneaky, I just don’t find that I need to be a bitch or feisty to—

—No, there’s nothing obsequious about you!

But I can see why the quote “feminist bitch” image has developed, because I think it has gotten people to a lot of great places.

ERICA CHANG  (not pictured)

I’m Erica, I’m 16, and I’m from Kansas.


What genre do you write in primarily?

I don’t think I’ve figured out what genre I like to write in yet. I write a lot of poetry and prose poetry.


Do you think about your writing in terms of your gender?

I do think it’s interesting that I’m not really influenced at all by female writers. I’m not sure why that is. All my influences just happen to be male. But I don’t think I consciously think of gender when I’m writing, more when I think about what’s influenced my writing.


Who are your influences, right now?

David Foster Wallace, Mark Leyner, Donald Barthelme . . .


And what is it you like about them?

That’s a hard question.

I mean, those guys, there are certain neuroses at work. I wonder if that’s not as common in women writers.

Right. I think women tend not to put it out for show as much as men. It seems to be more acceptable for a man to be sort of neurotic, whereas for a woman it looks more like a weakness.


What do the women in your family do?

My mom does computer programming, before that she did architecture, but I feel like the women in my family can’t decide what they want to do.

But they have careers. Is it expected that you’ll have one?

Yeah, and a practical career, so probably not writing.

What would happen if you became a writer?

I’m sure if I was a successful writer they would be okay with it, but I think that until I reached that point it would be rough.


Were your parents born in the States?

Both my parents are Chinese.

When did they move here?

In their twenties I think.


Does that cultural identity find its way into your work?

I think I almost consciously try to reject that. I feel like, especially after Tiger Mom, there’s a stigma against Asian cultures. I don’t know. I think if you’re Asian there’s a stereotype that you just work hard, push hard for everything, and you’re not necessarily talented or trying to make a statement in the world.

So it sounds like that’s more of a concern in terms of how you’re going to be received than your gender?


Are you pretty high achieving in other areas of your life? Because it’s a big deal to get in here. Do they know that?

I think they had maybe an idea. I think part of the reason they let me come to the program was because they thought it was prestigious, not because of writing.


I hope you continue to write. You are a great writer.

Well thanks.


So, are you going to take this legal freedom by the horns when you turn 18?

I don’t know; I was always kind of worried that I’d collapse at 18 and not know what I actually wanted to do with myself, with the freedom.


I’m Naomi, I’m 18, and I’m from Massachusetts.

And in the fall you’ll be going to?

Wellesley College.

Did you want to go to an all-women’s school?

I don’t really know how the all-women’s thing happened. In the end, after I got accepted, everything came down to financial aid offers and the sense I got from the campus. I would go to the co-ed schools and I’d stay in a dorm with women, and they were talking about parties or about guys they hooked up with. It was very focused on that . . . which was odd.


The fixation was on dudes, rather than education.

Yeah. Then I went to Wellesley. I was traveling a lot and I got sick with a cold right before, so I was doing the salt gargling thing, which is so disgusting but it works. I was in the bathroom at 11:30 at night doing that and a girl came in and she explained the chemistry of how it works—this is really late at night on a school night for her. I was like, “Whoa, okay, that’s pretty cool.”

At Wellesley they talked about academics and what drives them outside of the classroom. It was much more serious and less socially oriented than the other colleges, which I really appreciated.

Tell me about what kind of writing do you do.

I write realistic fiction at this stage in my life.

Recently I’ve been writing from the point of view of a mother who is either abandoning her children or doesn’t want children or somehow has a bad relationship with the idea of having her own, being responsible for loving or caring for a child.

What is it about that relationship that you find compelling?

Family dynamics are interesting to me.


What do your parents do?

My mom works at Williams College; she’s a music teacher. A music history teacher. My dad worked there when he was married to her, he taught piano, he still teaches piano. But his main thing is being a drum-circle facilitator, so he takes African drums around to libraries and schools and brings people together.


Do you think about your gender and how it might affect your life?

Yeah. I do. My thoughts have changed over the years, because my dad is African American and my mom is white. Growing up in my town, it was mainly white. My brother, who is biracial like me . . . I was watching him because he’s three years older than me. I was watching him deal with being a black man in this super white, pretty liberal, but not particularly accepting or welcoming town. And I was wondering what it was going to be like for me at that age, as a woman. How are guys going to view me, how are other women going to view me?

I see it more as an advantage, because people will look at me differently. For example, with writing, with these assignments where you have to follow people around—if I was a man, if I was my brother who is 6’2, it would be much harder for me to observe people like that.

What I’m hearing is that gender is wrapped up with your biracial experience.

Yeah. For me, growing up, gender was less important than race, just because race was a really obvious thing.


Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

I don’t think about it very much. Because for me there are a lot of negative connotations associated with that. Like women burning bras for reasons—I don’t really know. There’s the we-hate-men type . . . which I know isn’t what feminism is, but I haven’t done enough research.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience in school? You were saying when you spoke in class, your comments were received differently?

The only class I took this year was an English class and my teacher was a white guy. I like him a lot, he’s been really helpful to me, but he comes from a very different place in the world. There were nine or ten white kids in the class and there was a black girl who came from New York on the ABC program. I don’t know if you know about that, it’s called A Better Chance; it brings inner-city kids out to places like Williamstown to give them a better education. Or, a different one, I think.

Well, that’s got to be weird, to come from an inner-city and to be in a school full of white people.

Yeah. We had some interesting conversations about that. I’m quieter and I have a hard time getting into discussions because I don’t like interrupting people. But in that class it was especially hard because I would start talking and people would jump in and override me. We did this assignment where we had to write a senior speech about anything we wanted, and I wrote about growing up biracial in a white town. It was the first time I ever addressed the issue in public at all, in my school at all, to these people at all. I was talking about how it wasn’t always the most accepting environment, that it was difficult at times, and it’s hard to convey that to people.

After I finished, we were having a discussion and eventually one girl said, “It’s not like Williamstown isn’t friendly to people, we tolerate everybody” and I was kind of like okay, I guess that’s fair. Then I went home and my mom was like, “Tolerating is way different than accepting.” I thought that was a really good point.

A lot of the comments were like, “This isn’t an issue.”


Why do you think those were the comments?

Some of it is people not wanting to think about it. I’ve heard the comment that we’re living in a post-racial society, and I’m like “Hmm, no, not really.” It’s one of those issues that have a long, really bad history and people want to say it’s over now, it’s done, we live in a fine town. But it’s not. People don’t want to think about that or talk about that or recognize that.

I think a lot could be said about why people would want to deny your experience, but the fact that you bring in this long traumatic history—which really is not so long ago—is so poignant. There’s this nervous energy covering the silence.


Well, thanks for talking to me, Naomi. I have no doubt you’ll do amazing things.

Thank you.


I’m Alexa Derman and I’m 17 years old. I’m from Jersey.

What kind of writing do you do?

I write fiction, and I’m visiting hybrid text recently.

I read some of your hybrid essay about Ophelia, which was awesome. It seemed like you were drawing on academic sources in that one.

I’m not narcissistic enough to assume that I can analyze Hamlet better than anyone else in the entire world—I felt the need to see what other people had to say so I could get some perspective on it. That’s where I got the whole rue and miscarriage thing, from academia, so that was cool.

Talk about that—

Okay, so in Hamlet, you know in that mad scene when Ophelia is like, “flowers! You get a flower, you get a flower,” and she designates rue for her and Hamlet, and everyone says, “It’s regret, it’s so symbolic.” Someone on the internet was like, “Yo, rue was known as an herb you can use to induce a miscarriage.” I was like Whoa! Really wild . . . .

What writers do you admire?

I really like John Irving because his novels are so bizarre. Like Hotel New Hampshire, it includes incest, people in bear costumes, bombs, prostitutes . . .

Lorrie Moore will always mean so much to me . . . before her, all the short stories I read like “The Lottery,” I read “Harrison Bergeron” . . . .I felt like short fiction had to be truncated sentimental novels or something. And Lorrie Moore’s characters are nasty. People have arm hair, teenage girls are confused so they’re reading Playboy, people are stabbing people, there are people who are overweight, people sweat, they have weird skin conditions, they’re gross people and that was really interesting for me. I felt like I had to write about these pretty people with really pretty, attractive problems. Like too skinny, so innocent, you know like “my character is flawed, she’s overly trusting, and she’s too loveable.” I think nasty people are infinitely more interesting, so I love her.

The other night you were having a sort of epiphany. Something about fairness.

Yeah . . . I won this writing contest with a short story about breast cancer . . . I was like, “This contest is the be all and end all, this is the true definer of who’s a good writer.” And then the next year I didn’t win and I was like, “Shit. Okay. So either I’m the worst person in the entire world now and I have no legitimacy or it was a crap shoot.” And my parents said it was just a crapshoot . . . and I was like, “Wait, that means that when I won it was totally random.”

Especially with the college process, people always say it’s a crapshoot when you don’t get into Yale. When you do get into Yale, it’s never like, “I randomly got into Yale, even though there were 700 qualified people right behind me.”

Right. Or how about, “I can afford to go to Yale.”

Yeah, there’s that.

I think I said something to you like, “Get used to it because this is the life of a writer.”

It’s funny though, because it’s a thing that I thought that I knew.

All the time there are things that I think that I know, and then I find out . . .

I think I realized at 14, “Oh my god, my parents perceive me as their child, that’s why they treat me this way. They don’t think of me as their housemate who happens to be younger than them; they perceive me as their child.” It’s weird.

Can you talk to me about your feminism?

I call myself a feminist but . . . I’m not friends with anyone who isn’t a feminist. I was talking to some guys who said, “This feminist girl at my school…” and I was like, “Are you not feminist?” I don’t get it. How can you not want women to be equal and have the same opportunities as men? How is anyone not a feminist?

I don’t know, I’ve been talking a lot about writing and women and I keep seeing that now . . . every time I go into a bookstore. It keeps bothering me . . .

What do you keep seeing when you go into a bookstore?

I notice that every time a woman writes a book it has a high heel on the cover. Or a beach scene and the title is all in lower case . . .  it’s women’s fiction. But there’s no “men’s fiction,” it doesn’t exist; it’s not a genre, it’s just everyone’s fiction. You know what I’m saying?

Do you think it might be different with your generation?

I don’t know. I think that with big publishers it can’t make that much of a difference. Like I don’t think there’s ever going to be an enormous market for hybrid text about what it means to read a Suzan-Lori Parks play, you know? Likewise, I’m not sure about attitudes about women writers. It’s all about money.

I do feel there might be a shift. Just the fact that you threw down the term ‘cisgender’ the other night. Back in my day, which was not so long ago, it was love sees no color. There was no talk about the gender binary or that people could not identify with a gender, except in the academies and in those marginalized communities, but there was not a lot of fluency around this stuff.

Even in the gay community, like “It Gets Better,” Dan Savage is transphobic, and the Human Rights Campaign has apparently had transphobia scandals in the past. I think It Gets Better and Trevor Project are targeted towards gay white men. The next most socially active people at my school are straight girls who want to feel politically savvy and to have their white male gay best friend who they can go shopping with . . .

You feel like they’re tokenized?

Yeah, they’re also fetishized . . . my gay friends are really uncomfortable with it.

I bet. Are you socially active in your school?

“Feminist” at my school is synonymous with crazy lesbian. So the fact that I’m a lesbian, and if I say I’m a feminist, it’s like “Oh you’re one of those crazy-radical-man-hating lesbians.”

I’m in the GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance). But my GSA at times seems more into making straight people feel good about themselves. We had this whole ally week: “Wear red if you’re an ally, thanks for being an ally; you didn’t kick a gay person today, here’s a cookie.”

So what I’m hearing you say, the subtext is that they’re being phony. What would feel less phony?

I guess my point is, if the GSA could take all this energy spent making straight people feel good about themselves and channel it into writing a letter to Chris Christie to sign that anti-conversion bill that just passed in the Senate, that would be cool.

To me, an ally is someone who uses their position of privilege to help underprivileged people. You don’t get a day for being a decent person.

Can you talk about your privilege?

I’m cisgender, which makes my life super easy. I can go to the bathroom whenever I want, people look at me and don’t feel weirded out. I live in an upper middle class suburban town in New Jersey. I have money for an SAT tutor, I have a college counselor . . . I’m white! Jesus Christ, that’s huge.

I feel like I make an effort to educate myself about my privilege.

Do you think you’ll keep writing? This is what you love?

I mean, this is so pretentious; I was dictating poetry to my mom when I was like four. It’s a huge part of my identity . . . but I do other things. I do theater, I do political stuff. I do a program called Youth and Government which is like a mock legislature. My proposal at the national conference was, if you report a sexual assault they can’t use the content of your report to charge you with prostitution, because only 4 percent of sexual assaults on prostitutes are ever reported to the police compared to a national average of like 46 percent, and that’s mind boggling. . . . But writing is the backbone of my identity. It’s basically all I know how to do.

You might use your writing to further your political aspirations as well?

I feel like I do that by writing stories that have characters who are gay where it’s not the focal point—I just read a story in this Miranda July book called “Something That Needs Nothing,” and there were just lesbians in it. It was so surprising because, especially for teens, every story about gay people is about gay people. Like “oh it’s so hard being gay” or “I’m so bullied,” you know. They’re never just there as people.

Most of the people who will be reading this will be, I think, feminist women aged 20-50, do you have anything to say to them about where you’re coming from?

People think about teenagers . . . “You all have the internet and you text and you have no empathy and you’re all going to be terrible people.” But all this technology also means that I can read Wikipedia articles about the Dancing Plague, that even if I’m in the middle of Ohio I have access to other worldviews, infinite worldviews. I can read about Satanism, I can read about fundamentalist Christians, and I can form opinions based on all of it, and I can communicate with people all over the world who are in completely different situations from me.

Well said.

Thank you.


I’m Madeleine Cravens, I’m 17, and I hail from Brooklyn, New York.

I’m Zoë Senisë and I also hail from Brooklyn, New York.

You guys seem really bonded.

M: Once, a psychic told us that in another life we were twins.

Z: Yeah, and our auras are crazy compatible . . . and we shared a womb.

Tell me about your writing.

M: I do mostly creative nonfiction. I do some poetry and some fiction, but mostly creative nonfiction.

How did you start writing?

M: I started writing after my parents got divorced when I was thirteen. I was upset all the time, and if I didn’t write it down I’d be yelling at someone. It seemed preferable.

Z: I guess I started writing, well it wasn’t out of angst or emotion. I guess it was from reading. My ideas always seemed to be a little better than my writing. That’s why I come to these programs.


Nice plug. So, who do you guys like to read?

M: Whenever I get this question I end up spewing out a long list of middle-aged white men so that makes me feel sort of horrible. I love Dave Eggers, I love Jeffrey Eugenides, I love David Sedaris, I love . . . Haruki Murakami. He’s Asian. But I don’t read enough women. I mean I love Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan.

Z: To add to those lists of female writers I was reminded the other day of Margaret Atwood.

M: She’s f’ing good.

Z: Yeah, she’s f’ing good. Lately I’ve been reading Borges and Julio Cortázar. I like short meta-fiction. I like reading philosophy. Nietzsche and Descartes . . . not to be pretentious.


It’s not pretentious. Which female philosophers do you like to read? …Joking!

Z: But there are some.

M: Like Mary Wollstonecraft . . .


Would you call yourselves feminists?

Z+M: Yes, of course.

M. Anyone who is not an idiot is a feminist. I hate it when people are like, “I believe that women should be treated in the same way as men, and I believe in trying to close the wage gap. But I’m not a feminist.”

Z: It’s problematic that the word is stigmatized.

M: I feel like it’s especially important for men to claim the term feminist. My dad is really cool; my dad is a feminist. That shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re a decent human being—

Z: –A thinking human being.

M: Yeah.


Have you experienced sexism in your life?

M: We’re really privileged. I mean, before we say anything, we’re really lucky to live in America, especially New York City, and be white, and middle class, and go to good schools. So whatever we say is coming from a really narrow perspective of being a girl—because we probably have it the easiest of anyone.

Z: I’ve really started thinking about this in terms of playing music. It’s very different to be a girl with a guitar than a boy with a guitar, it’s more subversive—and it implies this rebellious nature even if you’re not. That’s where I’ve been the most aware of my femininity. When you’re the only girl in the band, you’re the token girl in the band.

M: To take this in a different direction, any girl who’s had a pregnancy scare realizes that her body could ruin her life. The options available to women in New York City are really important and the fact that in Texas they want to have six open clinics in the entire state scares the shit out of me as a teenage girl.


Sure. Good point. How does your gender affect your writing, if at all?

M: Almost everything I write has to do with being a girl.

Z: I mean, yeah, everything I write has to do with relationships, so far.

M: It feels like such a cliché.

Z: It is, but at the same time it’s what makes you feel so—

M: I don’t want to write about anything that’s not relevant and fresh and raw inside myself, and right now that’s sex.

Do you plan on becoming writers?

M: I mean it’s terrifying, because writing isn’t like other occupations where the amount of time you put into it equates to how good you are at it. You either have something or you don’t and you can’t move up in the ranks just by sheer willpower. The thought of something where so much of the achievement is out of my hands is just terrifying.

Z: I want writing to be a part of what I do.


Do you have an awareness of publishing being imbalanced in terms of women not being published as often as men?

M: Yeah. Just because my mom talks about it a lot.

Z: Mine too.

M: It’s not cool. On the teenage level, there’s a stereotype about girls being so much more into humanities than men, and then you hit a certain age and everything flips. As soon as it becomes a serious field.

You’re way more advanced than I was. What’s so disturbing to me about the VIDA count is—you guys are so smart and talented—I want you to have more than what the pie charts reflect.

M: It makes me so upset.

Why do you think more men get published than women?

M: Because we’re all bad writers.

Oh right, I forgot. One of the things they say is fewer women submit, which may or may not be true, but let’s be honest, editors reach out to authors they admire, it’s not all coming from a slush pile.

M: In school, starting from a really young age, girls are taught to say “I think” whereas boys are taught to say “I know.” It’s totally ingrained. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to connect these two thoughts but the fact that men are entitled to their ideas whereas women have to justify them really connects to every discrepancy we have in terms of occupation.

Is it okay to be angry as a woman? Does it make you a bitch?

M: I want to reclaim the word bitch. I feel like any girl who speaks out is labeled “cunty.”

Z: (Laughter)

M: We were trying to reclaim that word.

Z: And we did.

M: We have a term called cuntroversial. And then to adults we just say “cuntroversial, the philosopher.” And they say, “Oh. Ha ha, okay.”


You have a group called the cuntroversials?

M: No, just a few friends. It’s like a few days old.

Like Immanuel Kant?

Z: Yeah, that’s the joke.

You guys are geniuses.

M: Can I talk about how gay rights are women’s rights? The fact that same-sex relationships are so stigmatized stems directly from the fact that women and men are not seen as one and the same. To some extent there are really important differences, but their roles in society, in a utopian society, should be basically the same. Gay people are stigmatized because of the gender binary.

Z: It’s dumb to think of feminism as one gender’s problem, or one gender’s struggle to catch up with the other. I was raised to think of feminism not as a fight but being about love.

M: I’m going to cry.

Z: I do that on purpose.

M: Misandry annoys, misogyny kills. Hate against women kills women. Hate against men is irritating; it’s not killing anyone.

Z: I still wouldn’t encourage it though.

Who are your feminist heroes?

M: Zoë Senisë.

Z: Zoë Senisë.

M: You can’t say yourself!

Z: I’m joking. Madeleine Cravens.

M: Oh god. Kathleen Hanna. Basically anyone from the riot girl movement. That’s really annoying for me to say.

Z: I met Pussy Riot this year.


I thought they were in jail.

M: I thought they were in jail, too.

Z: Two of them got out and helped make a documentary—

M: Gloria Steinem, too. You have to say her or you’re a bad feminist. Also, Eve Ensler. Vagina Monologues are pretty fly.


Check out Maddie & Zoe’s blog here: http://el-feminista.tumblr.com/

Photo Credits: Julia Whicker

Gen Feminista! Talking Literature & Feminism with the New Rabble-Rousers

Home Movies

by Laura Bogart

As a memoirist who traffics in the petty savageries of family, I was eager to see Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell. The film’s plot may be driven by the question of Polley’s paternity, but it gets its narrative heft from posing a darker, more cavernous question, one that haunts any artist who relies on her own life as source material. How do we keep the “true” in “based on a true story” while digging in toeholds for our audiences, letting them climb inside our experiences and set up camp?

Polley juxtaposes interviews and voiceovers with grainy footage of her mother—flirting with a backstage Romeo who comes to see her on tour; hushing someone who’s caught her on the phone—that illustrates the moments being described. Polley seems lucky enough to have that history frozen in the amber of eight millimeter. Very few us get to say, “This happened exactly as I’m presenting it to you. Nothing in my telling is corrupt.”  Until, of course, she pulls the rabbit from her hat: these “home movies” were cast with doppelgangers, fully scripted, and staged for maximum impact.

The friend I saw the film with was pissed off by the reveal. He said that everything he’d become invested in as the truth simply wasn’t—it was an interpretation, a kind of fiction. I countered with “the writer’s toolbox,” and how, to get the most powerful, universal piece, we use elements from fiction—establishing stakes and through-lines and shucking anything that doesn’t fulfill them; dramatizing events to serve a certain theme; turning the self into “the narrator” who can hover above and flit down into other characters’ perspectives. Even if those “characters” are the people who raised you.

My friend’s assessment—an interpretation, a kind of fiction—has haunted me. I’ve built a byline excavating my damage; my back catalog is filled with images of my black eyes, of doors he broke down. Still, it is not my damage alone. Not just my broken nose. Not just my broken heart. But I have armored myself, armed myself, with what my father never had, what my mother was afraid of. I have words. And I use my words the way my father used his fists: I beat down. I dominate. My words unleash a gale-force fury against people who can never fight me back, not on equal footing.

Everything I’ve written about my family—my father’s rages, my mother’s fear—has been filed, rightfully, under non-fiction. I have the scars and the (slightly) crooked nose to prove it. The violence inflicted and the violence endured resides on my skin and underneath it. But memory is not a hard drive, a soulless repository of fact. It’s a watercolor stain just before it dries—messy yet delicate, unwieldy yet malleable.

At times, I look at the father I’ve rendered on the page—a man who smacks his daughter in the face for yawning when he tutors her in multiplication tables—and it’s unfathomable to imagine that man carrying that girl up to her bed, whooping, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Supergirl!” Yet he did.

He was as mercurial as a late summer sky: a promise of beneficent warmth or a smothering of heat that could only be relieved by a storm. When I was a child, I could not control him. When I write, I am Prospero: his thunder comes at my command. I gather his lightning into a box labeled with a million pitches: “pop culture,” “cinema,” “politics,” “phobias,” or “the novelty of female aggression,” and I pull out the flashes—memories of a particular beating or a tenderness that shattered me in equal measure—that illuminate a connection between my life and something far larger, something that other people can enter into, can rally around.

I wonder if my essays aren’t, in fact, like Polley’s “home movies”: facsimiles just grainy and faded enough to feel authentic. I wonder if the father who takes his belt off and teaches me to throw a punch, who calls me Supergirl and Pretty Girl and tells me he can’t believe how stupid I am, everyone knows that anything multiplied by zero is zero, hasn’t been cast straight out of the Brandoesque Academy for Nuanced Brutes. Sometimes, he was just a nondescript suburban dad. He wore loafers and mowed the lawn; he made pancakes for dinner and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on road trips. There is no drama in this.

I wonder if, every time I write, I whet my axe on the woodpile of my mother’s failures. If what I choose to remember of her—sponging foundation and brushing blush over my bruises and ruing the fairness of my skin; crying his name and never mine whenever I’d get between them—doesn’t illustrate anything but the fathomless chasm of my bitterness at so deep, so constant a betrayal.

I wonder if that something far larger, something other people could enter into and rally around is only me—a girl whose secrets were stones in her throat, a child so desperate to be heard.

There was no specific moment when I decided that I’d put my name to my life story. No radioactive spider bite or rescue pod rocketed from Krypton frames my origin as a non-fiction writer. At some point, funneling everything into fiction alone felt like telling my friends’ parents that I’d tripped on the pavement again.

But non-fiction workshops can, at times, feel like an atrocity Olympics: the gold medallist has the deepest scars, the most graphic nightmares. Yet the question that any good instructor will ask, the one that my instructors frequently did ask, is why. Why share this particular story? Why share it now?

I’m not sending dispatches from the eye of the hurricane. My father has not lifted his hands to me since I was thirteen years old. He’s worked all the steps, including the fourth step, the honest inventory, and the ninth step, making amends. He’s been sober for seventeen years. We’ve spent most of those years in various states of estrangement, though we have begun knitting ourselves whole. The work is slow, and occasionally we prick a finger, draw a little blood.

The truth is there is no tidy why. I can feign an unadulterated altruism, say that I write so that no other little girl should swallow stones; I write so that another survivor can spit his stone into the palm of his hand. But this isn’t the truth, not entirely.

Once, when a professor asked me that why, I sat mute, stirring embers in my mind. “It’s okay,” he joked, “if you write to get your pound of flesh.” Perhaps there is more truth in that than I’d care to admit; perhaps I write what I want to say when my mother asks why I never call her back, why I sound “so snippy” when I do pick up the phone.

Still, that isn’t entirely right, either. Yes, there’s that righteous thrill of testifying on your own behalf, of pointing your finger and slamming the gavel and saying “you sold me out, you wronged me.” It may be vindicating, even cathartic, but it will never smooth down my scars, and it will never blunt the edges of my dreams.

So why? Why turn my parents into players on the stage of my approximation, my interpretation? Archetype is an open hallway with naked walls, a place we ornament with our experiences. I enter my mother through her weaknesses, and I know I can’t repeat them.  I enter my father through his extremes, and I see something of myself in the man I recreate on the page. I see his quick wit and his quicker temper. I see how his own father unmade him, and how, without vigilance, I could be undone as easily.

I am my broken heart and my boiled blood. I will never be as objective as a camera lens. Then again, neither is any home movie. We film weddings and birthday parties and Christmas mornings, days when the family is all smiles. We film our loved ones in their brightest lights, blowing out the candles, letting the flower girl hold the trains of their dresses, laughing and giving a thumbs up to the Xbox under the tree. We never ask ourselves why. There is a power in sentiment—whether it’s elation or rage, joy or grief—that is as stripped and clean as an unvarnished fact. A power that is as pure as truth.

Home Movies

Confessions of a Cockblocker

by Deborah Pintonelli

Uncle Sammy was poised for his goodnight kiss, his grey stubble just a couple of inches from my face, his watery eyes pleading. Usually he didn’t care about what I wanted, but for the all-important kiss, he wanted a clear answer. A nod would do. We were finished playing doctor, to which I always said no. My mother had more than impressed upon me that I needed to be nice to him. Free babysitting. Each time she left me alone with him, I felt that she was expressing her hatred of me. The opposite of a mother’s love. She was sick, and her sickness played itself out in vaguely Buñuelian scenarios, complete with shattered, puke-colored interiors and bony, ancient evil doers. I see her self-satisfied figure in retreat, always, her stubby-fingered pimp hands trailing an old wood banister.

The nod “yes” for the goodnight kiss was a sigh of exhaustion, my eyes heavy and wanting to close for many hours. He had pulled a militaristic green wool blanket up under my chin. It itched, and threatened to ruin my rest. I would not let it. The stubble and the wool were irritants that would vanish as soon as the kiss ended.

He thanked me. “You are such a good girl. Goodnight my good girl.”

He was missing his teeth, and so always I could at first see, then feel, the sliminess of his gums. His breath was not bad, as I recall. Bad were the overall smoothness, wetness, and warmth— that I did not want. But I had to say yes to make him go away. The long day with him, to my child’s mind, was endless. Centuries seemed to pass. The earlier image of my nude body prone on a table near the big loft windows, as seen through his eyes, was overly fresh in my mind. I wanted to make it stop, at any cost.

It is a sad thing to have this be your introduction “sex.” Worse still to be so cognizant and that age of the microthin nuances of the negative and the positive within this new context. But the worst by far is having your mother pick you up the next morning and say that you are lying. It is her word against yours— even though she was not there for any of it— and she wants to win. But you don’t give up. It was so clear to you. It takes all your strength to stand up to her, but you do. Goodbye, Uncle Sammy. Hello, Mother, who has it in for you now.

It was a battle that I would not give up, and eventually win. The idea that truth should prevail, that my memory of events was not the cloudy perceptions of a baby, was something worth fighting for. Right or wrong, it set me up for life. I went to live with my Godmother, and my own Mother was forever relegated to the special place where liars live. To her dying day she lived by that code, and to this day there is nothing I despise more.

I have gone through the rest of my life, living in various households, even with her again, armed with this knowledge and the belief that I was forever immune to any more abuse. It is everywhere you look. But it did not happen to me again. What happened to me is what happens to everyone: a society’s interpretation of the sexual that is force-fed at every turn.

At times I have found it necessary to take a break from this and forgo anything intimate. Celibacy, as a way of drawing a polite curtain, opaque or sheer, that says No. Not with you, or anyone else. Not now.  Each time that I have, it is because I have found myself so profoundly confused by what it means to be sexual that I cannot be sure of what it is that I really want. And if this is true, then I know I am in danger of making some very bad choices. And I am leaving the door wide open for others to do the same.

This bout coincides with a time in our culture that is electric with reproductive rights clamp-downs, rape, slut-shaming of women and girls, and rape being formally acknowledged as a weapon of war: “The Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, endorsed by the G8 nations”. Then there is the never-ending roll call of violations by members of the Catholic church, and other institutions entrusted with the welfare of children, that it is as numbing as it is breathtaking.

None of this is new. What is new is the truth being brought to light, like a layer of bright, writhing maggots on a bag of old garbage.

To some, it feels as if we are at war. To many of us, it is a war that is never-ending. Not since I was an undergrad reading Mary Daly have things been so edgy. I remember poring over the treatises of the group S.C.U.M. (the Society for Cutting Up Men) while curling up on the couch with my cat, Sid Vicious. Every once in awhile I’d twitch involuntarily, sending him flying. I never signed up for the hate. It just doesn’t do any good.

My anger knows no bounds. It has gotten me into barroom brawls, screaming fights on the street, divorce court, and more. The only time that it crystallizes into something like power is when I am able to articulate it, act upon it, and make a change.

We have to take control of our sexual lives. We need to explore what it means to say yes, or no in this culture. Yes to all of the freedoms we have fought for, and no when we do not choose to exercise them. Women cannot be viewed in one breath as strong and sensible, and in another as incapable of making a decision. Violent people will always be around, making us do things we do not want to do. They can kill us. But they cannot kill what is in our hearts.

Anna March recently wrote an essay in Salon, which drew a very fine, and very brave, distinction between bad sex she had as a teen, and rape. The piece details reactions, pro and con, to an encounter in the season 2, episode 10 of Girls. The scene in question involved a difficult, unpleasant scenario with Adam asking Natalia to get on all fours, crawl to the bed, whereupon he takes her from behind. Then he cums on her chest. She never utters the word “no,” but afterwards says she “did not like that at all.”

March quotes from a 1994 essay in Harper’s by Mary Gaitskill who relates a story about a similar bad sexual experience to a girlfriend. The friend agrees that yes, “it sounds like you were raped. It sounds like you raped yourself.” The fact that both authors were under 18 at time of their encounters simultaneously obscures and heightens the issue. That they knew then, as they do now, that theirs were not rape experiences, is clear. That Anna March had to spend a lot of time after the essay was published arguing the finer points of statutory rape with commenters (it’s different in every state) actually bolstered her argument.

Teaching young people that sex is dirty, demeaning, and that they do not have the wherewithal to make choices, leaves it right in the gutter where perpetrators would like it to be. Then it doesn’t matter what answer the violated person gives, if any. March says, “Not giving, or being able to give, consent and regretting consent are two different things.”  She warns that “If [women] don’t take control of their own erotic development early, they may never take control.”


There is a song called “Date Rape” by the band Sublime that high school students find amusing these days. “If it wasn’t for date rape,” the song goes, “I wouldn’t have any sex at all.” This is the sort of irony that imbues the songs my teens listen to. If you tell them that the song is not funny, their eyes roll back into their heads. If you show them graphic pictures of girls being carried around frat parties while passed out, they smirk because they think that living in a cool city enables them to be exempt from such humiliations. All while strapping on their Victoria Secret padded bras and calling thirteen-year-old girls “hoes.”

It is time to acknowledge that we have not done a good enough job of teaching girls and boys about sex. To arm them with that power. We cannot protect them or ourselves with hatred, sanctimony, male bashing, religious intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, or any of the other forms of negation that are so readily available. None of that matters when it is a contest between what one or more persons want, and another does not.  If you have a firm grasp on what you did or did not want, then even if it does not go your way, and even if you are hurt, you retain a level of dignity which is healing. If you do not, you are, as it were, fucked.

Blaming the victim, shaming him or her, is society’s way of piling shit onto more shit. Calling someone a victim who is not is the same as denying that they are one.  In either case the result is the same: it means that they have been effectively silenced. And that is where the bad work begins.

On my birthday not too long ago I was treated to an extravagant night at the Drake hotel in Chicago. I was not prepared for the amount of paraphernalia my date brought with him;

Two bottles each of champagne, red, and white wine

Fresh berries & chocolates

One brand new five foot length of coated black rope

Tweezers (miniature)

A small mirror with a kickstand

Assorted Q Tips, cotton balls, etc.

Fresh cigars, shirts, and other stuff he needed

I was astonished. I’m a divorced mother of two, and I’ve been on my own since I was seventeen. I am not a prude. Not much surprises me. And contrary to what one might expect from my having had my first experience at age five, I really, really like sex. Still, it wasn’t the first time I’d set up shop in this particular sexual flea market. Reasons abound. For acceptance, or power, or out of pity for someone. In exchange for a place to live, or for a whole life. Out of boredom, or loneliness. For all these reasons, and just because I could, I have laid it all out.

He had been sexually deprived, he told me. His wife, overweight, neurotic, and bored with him, refused to let him see her naked. He needed to see. He showed me his scarred, uncircumsized penis. The scars were from years of masturbating alone, with a pint of ice cream by his side. I was already in, but I wondered why we had to go this route. I’d just gotten off another, similar track, and now I found myself doing it again. Visiting sex shops. Tied up with rope. Then more regular fare for a few years, and finally, a break up.

Nothing I did, or agreed to do, could penetrate that lonely place of his. My lonely place was of no interest to him. I’m not even sure I have one. His eyes said to me, and to everyone, that his was not accessible. If asked outright why this was so, he would smirk and prevaricate. Or cry. “I’m broken,” he would say. The anger that knows no bounds unleashed itself upon him, but it was too late. I’d already said yes, what more was there to say?

Not much. Except this. I’m pretty close to saying yes again. I want to, but something in me recoils. I know what’s out there, and it’s become tiresome, like a restaurant that can never change its menu. It makes me better understand the reasoning behind seeking out the young. Can it be different? Have they been able to avoid the shame and disgust associated with sex so that they can have it without producing a length of rope? Or is there just a whole other segment of the population that is not damaged in this way? I hope so.

Confessions of a Cockblocker

Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

by Sheila McMullin

Science reasons we came from glass. Water vapor trapped in glass, encapsulated in an asteroid leaving Mars crashing into Earth. Water stimulating growth on Earth. We may have come from Mars, not just men, all of us. Earth is defined as a water-based planet needing the sun, needing the water more. To be living means we traveled a long way to be prosperous. I think of feminism like water, and water like camaraderie. Love is said to connect us all… water seems more tangible, physical, material, transformative; engaging all our senses, is divine, spiritual, cleansing, life-giving. Water is a currency. Water unites, and it is ravaged.


I wanted to let my hair shine weightless in the pool. Knowing only some of my hair was there. Knowing if I wanted my hair to grow back, I would receive scores of cortisone injections into my skull. This procedure doesn’t work for everyone. Knowing my fret over losing my hair was deemed cosmetic and uncovered by insurance. Knowing losing one’s hair is only a side effect of alopecia. The root of the problem was more emotional, more stress-related. Perhaps under the care of a therapist to work on relaxation strategies I could realign my immune system without the injections. Knowing long-term emotional health care is also cosmetic and uncovered. I was in high school.

It was there in the water where no one could really see me; I fell in love with floating. Being outside, with the sun on my skin, holding my breath, and concentrating on sitting on the bottom in a weightless arena. I would do anything to keep close to water.


1946: At the moment the light traveled and hit their eyes, the far away sky heard compliments. Then the far away sky heard the explosive sound, which had already seen bulldoze the palm trees. Sound came as a shock wave on the ocean top, and knocked like a thud against the wooden chests of all the observing soldiers. Huge fire and ocean dirt rolled up into the skies.

It was said: it reminded me of the setting sun, it was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen, greatest thing I had ever seen.


After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government chose to experiment with the atomic bomb over the water. Their location: the Bikini Atoll.

The U.S. government employed military duty to explore the offensive or defensive power of this weapon. A Harnessing of the Basic Power of the Universe, it was called. Under the guise of the benefit of mankind.


Operation Crossroads at Bikini.

While the American military explained to the Bikinians they would have to leave Bikini (so the bomb could be dropped on their home in front of cameras as God’s calling), Bikinians were unaware what the camera was. A Native Bikinian recorded in the 1988 documentary Radio Bikini is quoted to this effect.

Cut to stock footage: Take after take of admiral explaining the dropping of the bomb in multiple inflections in front of a quiet, sitting Bikini audience.

The Bikinians were boarded to sail to the island, Rongerik, an uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands. Leaving their home, they watched the military burn everything into the sand.


“One of the most important, and one of the most dramatic elements concerned with the dropping of the bomb is the photographic aspect,” says Operation Crossroads Military Personnel.

As human beings in an inter-connected global economy we focus on sight. What are others doing and how does it compare to what we are doing? We need this coverage to keep progressive. So often our coverage fails to awaken us to an underlying damage being done.


It was awesome glory being a spectator in this waterscape. But future be told, no one was just a spectator at Bikini. Especially those merely 20 miles away.

“Do as you’re told and nothing bad will happen to anyone,” says Operation Crossroads Enlisted Soldier, John Smitherman. None of the soldiers had any real knowledge of radioactivity—a word not yet in common vernacular. Before Veteran Smitherman died in the late-80s, he suffered from incredibly swollen ligaments and amputated legs. He died of cancer.

Marie Curie had coined the term radioactive barely 50 years earlier.

The displaced Bikinians still in harm’s way, still unable to go home, suffer today from disproportionately high rates of cancer and diabetes. More data and testimonials can also be found at Unnatural Causes.


Cut to stock footage: Huge fires pirouette into the sky. Able detonates, makes fish into birds obliterating every test dummy battleship in the bomb’s radius.

To my knowledge, only slight reparations have been given to Marshallese Islanders and Operation Crossroads veterans.


A slow war of pollution at levels never before imagined entered into the waterscape.

Within ten hours of detonation soldiers were at ground zero. They continued to wash, drink, and bathe in the water their ships and islands floated in.

The animals aboard the test dummy military ships were ravaged by the radiation. The animals’ skin was tested for causal reactions to radiation—as if not enough evidence was found in Japan.


Waterscape: Within two months of their displacement, the Bikinians were starving on their new island, Rongerik, with inadequate food and water supplies. Military escorts visited to display pictures of the bomb exploding over their home. Baffled by what they were really seeing and reasons as to why they could not go home, a U.S. soldier is over heard saying: “At least they admit it.” The Bikinians he means… to not knowing exactly what is that atom bomb?

Rongerik was an already uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands, so why bomb Bikini? If a bomb needed to be dropped, why Bikini?


1946: The term bikini for the swimsuit was coined by Louis Réard, the same year as the nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll. In a design race to create the world’s smallest swimsuit, he found inspiration in the smallest atom creating the most destructive earthly force.

What I am to write, I hate, because it is the saddest thought I’ve ever had. Why did a bomb need to be dropped on Bikini? Because people were there. Cultural constructions demand the need for a human presence, so beginning operations can be valued as important, after which, those people can be ignored.

Réard was not making an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing protest with the naming of his swimsuit. Taking advantage of the already exoticized island body and culture, the built-in fame of the word bikini, and its proximity to water, the bikini swimsuit was born de facto propaganda.

Waterscape: When we talk nonchalantly about our “beach bodies” or “bikini ready” what are we then saying? Bodies devastated by cancer? Homes burnt to the ground? When we get a biniki wax, what are we waxing? Ripping away Earth. To be clear, I wear my two piece because I want the sun on my body. But because I want, cannot mean a forgetting or ignoring of this history. I’d do anything to keep close to water.

Wearing a bikini hasn’t become an act of protest quite yet. I know some wear suits decorated with radioactive symbols, but most of our conversations of the female body in this highly sexualized suit does not focus here. A sexist hyper-active focus on the female waistline displaces the history of Bikini.

And then I wonder: What else is tiny? What else is polluting our water?


Plastic is a miracle product providing cheap resources for over 7 billion people. But plastic never decomposes, only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that sea creatures and land animals eat. Or plastic absorbs into our soil and skin, which then affects our hormones and biological composition. General disregard of waste finds its way into our oceans—oceans which are now huge trashcans.

On a readily visible level, sea creatures ingest these molecule-sized plastics and begin the process of self-embalming because they were eating what looked like their natural food source.

Do you know where the plastic things go? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Gyres. A great displacement of our belongings right into the ocean. There is no “throw away,” only a throw into.

I fear plastic on my worst days, and ignore it on every other day. I fear a tasteless, scentless, clear poison in our water. Drink the water and slowly mutate into the immortal Barbies and Kens. Soon, this won’t be a choice, it hasn’t been for our animals.


As we become more artificial we lose our love. As our water sources become more polluted, water quality becomes an even higher concern, becomes more valuable, and less people receive access to clean water sources and healthy, prospering environments.

Place is not free of plastic, of radiation, of our use of water. We have a lot to do. Not only do we have to prepare and plan for a sustainable future, reduce our dependence on plastic, re-evaluate our need for massive destructive weapons, we have to be filled with historical knowledge. Knowledge, like water, can fill every gap in us.

In my 13th year I was baptized in the ocean, in the dull waves under a cliff in California. We come from water, inherit water, and I wanted to pay my respects. After my baptism I wore my first bikini.


Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

Telling Stories

by Lisa Piazza

This is fiction, the writer said, sorting through the papers in front of her. You don’t have to worry about me. Then she dipped her voice deliberately, sounding out each push-pull syllable—each open o and empty i. Half a page in, mid-phrase, she tipped tightly into the rote dispatch of someone else’s scene: someone else’s white dishes, edged in baby blue. Someone else’s salad plates stacked by the sink, someone’s saucers thrown against the wall, shards aimed like arrows at the ankles, flecks of porcelain grazing someone else’s face.

At the table, two writers down, I pictured brown cabinets. Dark lights. Not my mother’s kitchen, not my own. A steep staircase, a hard push; suitcases taken and torn. I pictured harmful arms, tender necks, broken glass; tokens too fragile to last.

This is fiction, we remembered, stunned into silence after her last word—the usual post-reading pause times two.

You don’t have to worry about me.

I was nineteen. And I believed her.

At that time MFA candidates at Mills College were mixed in with undergraduate writing majors, so I was the youngest in the room by far. We met Tuesday evenings around a long seminar table in the Lucie Stern building to read and critique each other’s work. Each week, like a new page in a lift-the-flap book, never knowing what we would find. Revealing, by degrees, what we dared to share.

There was Susan, whose teenage daughter had taken a horse out bareback with some friends and fallen off. She was in a coma now and would be dead by the end of the semester. Early December, Susan read a sparse page describing in stark detail how she had given her daughter permission to die. We knew this was not fiction. She admitted too plainly the mixture of relief and despair of that hospital room, that side-sitting chair, that breathing machine. That exact moment. I expected more feeling—some weight to the words. I didn’t understand then no metaphor could possibly coddle her pain. Any clause would only hold her loss like a futureless child, cradled by commas too far apart.

Mia’s piece, set on a remote Greek island, read like an independence anthem: sentimental boasting about leaving a lover for good. Tossled sheets, warm skin, silent goodbyes. (Images of motorcycles zooming through the hills of Kythnos, overlooking the crystal sea, would lure me to this island the following year during my study abroad. I would find goats, not love. Goats and ripe tomatoes; rocky beaches, empty towns.)

Alison, the other undergraduate at the table, was quiet but confident. She had long blonde hair and peachy skin and wore plain cotton turtlenecks with ankle-length skirts. I guessed she had moved from Utah or Nebraska—some place more chaste than here. She always smiled with her mouth closed so that we could only assume she knew more than she let on—more than she was ever going to share. Her story started with a subtle knock at the door and ended with a bloody stain on the floor. No one expected murder from her.

That year I wrote a short story about a girl in a car, driving the highways at night. Except she wasn’t driving. She never drove. She was always the passenger in her boyfriend’s overhauled sports car. She would stare out his window at all the lights—all the lives—lit up across the Bay or nestled neatly into the East Bay hills. Whole worlds she leaned close to imagine. The story ended with an image of the seashore: a father and daughter collecting shells. There was some kind of final metaphor involving hovering elephants. It made sense at the time. Something about memory—time before time. Easy lines. Simple story, half-thought. I didn’t know the extent of the arc then. It felt like fiction.

You don’t have to worry about me.

Our instructor, Sheila Ballantyne, was patient and generous. She asked questions and allowed for pauses, encouraged without pushing. Twenty years out I can still place myself in her office, nervously watching as she pulled her pencil toward my pages, marking in the margin what worked, cutting into sentences what didn’t. I sat by her desk, too shy to ask questions, too inexperienced to consider myself writer-enough. Too young to see how the purity in fiction can overpass truth, too scared to ask what truth isn’t, in fact, magnified by fiction?

Before Mills, my main experience with critique sessions had been a small dysfunctional committee of my own concoction: part older sister, part neighborhood best friend. Together they processed each story-start, sanctioning the ones that could go on. We sat in a circle on the blue carpet of my bedroom and they wrote “can it” or “yam it”—our codes for no way or keep going on each draft. But they were readers, not writers, and didn’t understand my commitment to characters. Whole paragraphs were laughed at, isolated words tossed between them like a crazy game of four-square, or worse, skimmed briefly then neglected entirely. I don’t know why I showed them anything.

In high school I lucked into Jane Juska as an English and Creative Writing teacher. She tolerated the sentimentality of my lengthy girl-meets-boy stories, typing out page-long letters in response to my portfolio—a simple manila folder filled with my best work. She wanted to know why the girl always needed to be rescued. She prodded me to write from the male perspective. I got it almost right—but I was one of three girls in my family and over-romanticized all things boy. Jane treated all of her students’ pieces with a seriousness that legitimized our efforts in storytelling and verse. She brought in coffee and tea and put on music to mask the conventionality of our suburban public high school classroom; she wanted to give us a café-style experience akin to her Berkeley neighborhood. I sat next to my friend Vrinda and we mostly goofed off all year, pretending to write. Vrinda did manage to produce one poem that year that Ms. Juska admired enough to tout. It was called “Sarah, Sarah Backyard” and had something to do with observation and perception, bugs and blades of grass. It made a crazy kind of sense that earned Vrinda all sorts of esteem in the class. I don’t think she wrote another piece all year, but that poem carried her through. Sometimes one poem is enough to prove a poet.

Now that I lead my own writing workshops for kids, I understand that talk of technique and poetic structure is ancillary to what I can really offer them: the permission to write. They don’t come for answers or wordplay. They come (on a Saturday, no less!) because they have a story or a sound beating against their brain and there is very little room on a Scantron sheet to eke out a verse or develop character motivation. They come wound-up and leave freed, because there is comfort in sitting around with other poets, other perceptive kids who cleave to words the way athletes cling to balls or actors clutch their scripts.

This is how it felt when I first met with Sheila at Mills. I didn’t have to explain my crazy compulsion; she shared that same writers’ madness. It was the closest I had ever come to therapy, with her tasteful display of black and white photographs, abstract postcards tacked to the wall; a desk, a chair, a window, a wanting. Words lined up belly deep, secrets to keep. Each meeting felt like an unveiling—a blessing. Phrases chosen to dedicate the day, stories crafted for the ultimate audience.

Would I turn to her now? (Though she is many years dead from an obscure neurological disease.) My current therapist, a marriage counselor who expects much more than fiction from me, wears similar sweaters but heavier make-up. She doesn’t bother with my syntax, but she sometimes talks about helping me construct a “new narrative.”

I can only bring up the old stories.

And not mine either.

I tell her I’m teaching Gatsby to my high school juniors again and she nods. I tell her this time through I am stuck on Daisy Buchanan. I say, some years, when I read her, I can’t stand that vapid trill. But some years, I get caught up in the billowing whiteness of her sitting room—in the heat of her afternoon, the romance of her loss. Everyone loves Jay the first time around, I tell her, the tragedy of his dream gone wrong. But for Fitzgerald, Daisy is only an easy target. And I don’t want to end up like her. The stasis of her situation. The meanness of her marriage. A woman pale enough to be called wan.

How bad is it? My therapist asked at the start of our first session, but today she is casually alarmed by my literary intensity. I have escorted extra characters into the room, introduced a new thread she can’t weave into her version of my life.

“That’s fiction.” She chides, as though the distinction is clear. Invention versus truth. Falsehood, deceit, lies. Not fact.

“That’s only fiction,” she says again and I think about the way my mind slices time sideways, intersecting narratives, pausing one reality to play another. How sometimes I sit staring at both sides of the same mirror. And maybe I am only telling stories here.

Telling Stories